Puffins, Pelts, and Photographs: A Story of Fragile Abundance in the Pribilofs

by Alison Vilag

Incoming Tufted Puffins above an unconcerned Thick-billed Murre, St. Paul Island. © Alison Vilag.

Each Friday on St. Paul Island, the gas station–two derelict pumps and a weatherbeaten shed where we pay–becomes the community’s gathering place. A parade of pickups and ATVs queue around the dirt parking lot, stocking up until Monday, when the station opens again. One of these Fridays in early June, I fall into stride with Greg Sr., an Aleut elder and accomplished hunter who wields his dangerous wit and dry humor at my expense whenever the opportunity presents itself.

“How are the birds?” he asks.
“There aren’t many this year,” I say.

Last year by this time, the dark volcanic rock ringing the south and west sides of the island was already covered with whitewash from the seabird colonies’ excretions. This summer, I keep waiting for them to come back like that, and am starting to worry–to admit–that they won’t.

“There’s not,” Greg agrees. “I haven’t been hunting the murres out on Ridge Wall. Not enough of ‘em.”
He pauses. “What’s happening to ‘em?”
“We’re not sure.”

I give him a laundry list of explanations, none exactly satisfactory. “Climate change. Not enough food for them. There were thousands of murres that died in Alaska this winter, starved, they say.”
“That’s the right answer!”
I stop mid-stride, confused.
“You didn’t say that it was because we’re eating ‘em!”
I laugh, roll my eyes, continue on my way. The lupines are in peak bloom, a full two weeks earlier than last year.

This conversation–or some version of it–was becoming the summer’s theme. It would happen in passing at the gas station, inside the palatial white NOAA house where researchers gathered over beer and card games, between guide and clients, as I fielded accusations from demanding clients that my company, St. Paul Tour, had misleadingly marketed its potential for seabird photography. It all was unsettling.

A rare sunny day on St. Paul Island, Alaska.  © Alison Vilag.

St. Paul Island, at 42 square miles is the largest of the five Pribilofs. On a map, this group appears as minute blips suspended in the vast Bering Sea, so far-removed from any landmass that a cursory glance might not reveal which country claims them. The region conjures images of impenetrable fogs, of furious seas, of unpredictable skies. Yet in this isolation, many find a home: namely,  the world’s largest concentration of northern fur seals, two small Aleut communities, myriad seabirds nesting on rugged cliff faces, and, for two summers, me.

I worked as a guide for the native corporation, Tanadgusix. Most of our guests came because of the birds–either to scour the island for Russian vagrants that would turn up after a strong westerly blow or to photograph the charismatic cliff-nesting species. There were many places to love on St. Paul. I found Reef Cliffs, just outside of town–a scattering of colorful, weathered buildings and the prominent dome of a Russian Orthodox Church–to be one of the most magical.

Classic Pribilof seacliff scene (Black-legged Kittiwake, Thick-billed Murre, Tufted Puffin).  © Alison Vilag.

There, around the time of summer’s solstice, the air was a heavy fusion of nootka lupine, kelp, and seal rookery. Puffins whirled in a circuit like a merry-go-round, golden tufts flying in the breeze, bright orange feet dropping like landing gear as they’d try to light on a ledge, abort, come back for another attempt. Steller’s sea lions coughed; seals turned over and over in the froth, wrapped in kelp. Below and to the left, the cliffs spread like some sort of geologic origami, seabirds like murres, auklets, and kittiwakes settled on each fold, all claiming their stoops. My first summer on St. Paul, the island radiated life. To witness its exaltation was sobering, stunning, centering.

When I returned in 2016, I brought with me the naïve expectation that the cliffs would have the same essence as my first season. In nature, you can’t take things like that for granted; ecosystem balance is less robust than the carelessness with which we often treat it.

There is a long history of mistreating this region’s resources. Bounded by the Chukchi Sea on the north, the Aleutian archipelago to the south, and longitudinally by the Alaska mainland and Russian Far East, the Bering Sea region is rich, dynamic, filled with swirling currents, vast underwater canyons, substantial fisheries, swarms of seabirds, bellowing seal rookeries. In fact, it was the seals that put this region on the map—when Russian Gavriil Pribylov happened on the then-uninhabited Pribilofs in 1786, he found the location of the northern fur seal’s breeding grounds. For the Aleuts, this discovery unleashed more than a century of oppression–first by the Russians, who forcibly relocated these people to the Pribilofs to slaughter hundreds of thousands of seals, then by the Americans who continued the practice after the Alaska Purchase.

Northern Fur Seal harem, St. Paul Island.  © Alison Vilag

The Bering Sea is christened for Vitus Bering, the Danish captain of the Russian expedition that “discovered” Alaska. Their voyage, fraught with uncertainty, conflict, and foul weather–crucial elements of any exploration epic–was interrupted when they shipwrecked on Russia’s Bering Island. Although Bering and a good portion of his crew died of scurvy here during the winter of 1741, enough of them survived to rebuild their ship and return to Kamchatka the following spring. Their hold contained the discoveries of German naturalist Georg Steller and a significant cache of valuable sea otter pelts.

These pelts instigated a rush for the islands this voyage charted, and for the next century, Russian furtraders methodically leveled the region’s populations of otter, fur seal, walrus, and native peoples. The type of abundance that Steller had exalted on that first exploration was quickly extinguished.  Otters became so decimated in subsequent decades that for some time they were thought entirely extinct. Steller’s sea cow, a manatee-like animal that were a substantial, delicious, and readily-hunted food in a region where nutrition was hardscrabble at best were hunted to extinction less than 30 years after their discovery. We know them almost solely from Steller’s descriptions. Pallas’s Cormorants were also discovered by Steller on Bering Island. He noted they were delicious, large enough to feed three starving men, and reluctant to fly. They too were soon extinct.

Steller’s sea cows and Pallas’s Cormorants are species that aren’t a big part of our narratives, for we know them only from a small number of early writings. But today in the Pribilofs, seabirds are an established, significant element of life–something that the communities rely on: Greg Sr. hunts them for physical sustenance. I am paid by those who travel vast distances to witness the magic (and paid also in the spiritual restoration I glean from the time I spend on the cliffs). The visiting photographer has gambled an exorbitant amount of money to travel here on the hopes of getting that perfect shot of a puffin carrying the fish. 2016, the year the cliffs were barren rather than bursting, was not a good year to get that shot.

Horned Puffin, St. Paul Island.  © Alison Vilag.

“There are not many birds here! I expected there to be more,” states a woman who came all the way from Israel for that shot.  “This is not how I was told it would be at all. Do you have different cliffs? This is no good.” Her disappointment triggers my own–I thought it was going to be like last year, when everything seemed fine.

“It wasn’t like this last year,” I reply. I don’t know if she buys it.

She’s right though. It’s not good, and it’s the birds themselves that face the gravest consequences. The Crested Auklets, a bird that looks like Dr. Seuss’s imagination incarnate, are the first to give up completely. We still see them, but instead of bickering on the rocky ledges where they should be, they’re well offshore. Many of them are losing their namesake floppy bangs, their breeding plumage, already.

Crested Auklets, St. Paul Island.  © Alison Vilag.

They were not alone. In 2016, Pribilof seabird populations of most species suffered. Least Auklets, sassy, lilliputian puffin relatives, were barely present. This cheeky species reacts to capture through a sequence of endearing actions like shitting on your rainpants and vomiting. Researchers with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service capitalize on this quality to learn what the auklets are eating. In 2016, they noted that Least Auklet stomach contents consisted of more fish than usual. Fish contain less energy than their preferred food, zooplankton called copepods. These same researchers recorded that Common and Thick-billed Murres produced fewer chicks in 2016 than ever before in the 40-year history of their studies in the Pribilofs. Then in October, hundreds of dead puffins washed up on the islands’ rocky beaches. It was the first time a die-off like this had been recorded in the region.

St. Paul’s constant is change. The precipitation, the wind, the fogs, the birds that get blown in from the Alaska and Russian mainland— all of this is fluid, ongoing, natural and normal to the island. However, not all the changes that St. Paul bears are this benign. 2016’s seabird failures were tragic, alarming. And yet, though there’s speculation, there’s no definite, absolute cause. This story is not as straightforward as hungry furtraders eating Steller’s Sea Cows and Pallas’s Cormorants to extinction while they decimated the region’s sea otter populations.

I’m not sure if it’s possible to grasp this region’s environmental prosperity—perhaps the closest we’ll come is seeing a barge heavy with millions of dollars of crab exit St. Paul’s harbor, or watching a cloud of Short-tailed Shearwaters dipping, twisting, banking across the fog-line. Despite the outward abundance, despite the stark beauty, this all is fragile. It is important that we do not consider the Pribilofs a place with boundless resilience.  For all who depend on the region’s resources–and for the sake of those resources themselves–we need to carefully consider the possibilities behind collapses like these, then act on them.

Least Auklet, St. Paul Island. ©  Alison Vilag.

Alison Vilag, currently (but ephemerally) of Chicago, Illinois, is a field technician and science communicator who received her B.A. from Unity College in Maine, where she studied environmental media production. Alison is at present affiliated with the Illinois Natural History Survey; the project she assists examines the significance of metropolitan forest preserves to nesting and migratory birds in the greater Chicago area. When she’s not casing suburban woodlands or moonlight bartending, Alison keeps herself entertained with canoeing, Chicago blues, and eating too much curry. Alison is passionate about using storytelling in a variety of mediums to connect people to nature; you can follow her work at @boreal_vagabond (Instagram and Twitter), @vilaga (Medium), and www.gypsygene.blogspot.com

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