A Conservationist Moment in United States Coast Guard History
Several years ago now, I had the privilege and honor to help edit several books written about the history of the Pribilof Islands in the middle of the Bering Sea. These books were written by a dear friend of mine by the name of John Lindsay, along with his wife, Betty Lindsay, who is a distant cousin of mine. These books included the history of the Russian founding and occupation of the Pribilof Islands, the history of the islands after the Russian sale of Alaska to the United States, and a history of the Aleuts who live on the island and their Russian Orthodox faith. Part of that history includes the involvement of the United States Revenue Marine Service, which would later be called the United States Coast Guard.
The Pribilofs are a pair of islands in the middle of the Bering Sea. They are known now as St. Paul and St. George Islands and are known well by those who make a living fishing the rich waters of the Bering Sea. But before 1786, they were uninhabited islands, the remains of old volcanoes, and were in ancient times part of the ice bridge that connected what is now Russia with Alaska, across which it is believed came the peoples who would populate the massive continents of the Americas.
In 1786, a Russian explorer, ship captain, and fur trader, Gavril Pribylov, discovered the islands and found them to be the largest rookery of northern fur seals in the world. At the time that these islands were discovered, the rookeries on St. Paul and St. George Islands saw the annual return of an estimated 4 million northern fur seals to mate and to give birth to their pups. The Russian fur hunters forcibly relocated Native Aleuts from the Aleutian Island chain up to the Pribilofs to hunt and to process the fur seals, making massive amounts of wealth for the Russian fur traders and Russia.
Today’s population of St. Paul Island is about 500 people, with 450 of them being native Aleuts. It is their land. They own 450 shares or about 95% of the island per a federal agreement in the 1960s. The wealth that was generated by the fur seal industry in the 1800s was coveted by other fur hunting nations, including Japan, Great Britain (Canada) and the United States.
The Russians needed to sell Alaska to get revenue to recover from losses incurred by their loss of the Crimean War in 1856. The United States would purchase the vast territory of Alaska, including the Pribilof Islands, just three years after the end of the Civil War in 1868. It was purchased at the time for $7.2 million; the equivalent in today’s dollars would be $140 million. A bargain price no matter how you look at it. Indeed, the fur seal industry was so lucrative that the United States paid off the purchase price and earned many times more in a few short years. The American purchase of Alaska did not slow the lust for the revenue that came from the fur seal industry. Japan and Great Britain were still competing for that wealth.
With the purchase of the Pribilofs, the then United States Revenue Marine Service was put in charge of protecting the islands and their revenue. The fur hunting nations began to hunt the fur seals at sea during their migrations south. This was called pelagic hunting. It was a particularly wasteful and damaging form of hunting. The animals would be shot with rifles from a distance in the open sea, and the killed or wounded animals would often sink out of reach by the time the hunters could get to them. It was said that for every 10 seals shot, only 1 to 2 would be recovered. The end result was that the fur seal numbers declined dramatically, to the point of threatening their very existence.
The Revenue Marine Service (Coast Guard) was actively out at sea and around the islands during that time in an effort to stop the slaughter that was the result of this pelagic hunting method. They were seizing boats and cargo and protecting the rookeries on the islands. On one occasion in the late 1890s, a Japanese fur hunting expedition actually made an attempt to invade St. Paul Island out at the easternmost end of the island at Northeast Point. They came ashore armed and were met by a group of local Aleuts and U.S. Revenue Marine Service men. A short battle ensued, wherein several of the Japanese invaders were killed, as well as three of the defenders. I have been out there and seen the burial site where they are buried. It is on top of Hutchinson Hill and overlooks the battle site and the largest rookery on the island.
The United States Coast Guard has had a presence on the Pribilof Islands since the time of their purchase. During WWII and well beyond, they managed and maintained a LORAN station on the island for communication and for global location and positioning purposes. When I visited St. Paul Island about 10 years ago now, there was a large Coast Guard station there with helicopters and cutters to patrol and to carry out search and rescue operations.
The Pribilofs are the most isolated place I have ever visited. They are unspeakably beautiful, windswept, dots of land in the vastness of the Bering Sea. The United States Coast Guard’s service during the period of the fur seal industry would evolve into not just a protection of revenue but an effort to save the northern fur seals. They would, after very long efforts, put an end to pelagic hunting of the seals. The United States would pass legislation early in the twentieth century to protect the northern fur seal. It was considered the first ever endangered species legislation that would then, several decades later, be developed further with the Fur Seal Act of 1966.
This is just one of the thousands of stories that make up the long history of the United States Coast Guard, which came to be under the administration of our nation’s first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. The Coast Guard has a long and honored history of being “Semper Paratus” (Always Ready).Whizzco