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Mapping Ecologically Sensitive Islands in the Bering Sea

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Map of Alaska, showing location of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea
The Pribilof Islands provide breeding grounds for more than two-thirds of the world's northern fur seals. Photographs below courtesy of NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.
seals on beach
seal cow roaring
seals on boulders
The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Office of Response and Restoration have recently completed a set of environmentally important maps of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.

Begun in 2000, the cooperative project concluded in March 2003 with the final delivery of map products to be used in NOAA's ongoing remediation of contaminated sites in the Pribilof Islands. The new map products consist of both digital data sets and paper products, including the first USGS topographic-quadrangle maps of the islands at a scale of 1:25,000 and a set of digital orthophotoquads based on aerial photographs taken in 1993. In addition to supporting remediation activities, the new map products will assist researchers in classifying vegetation, analyzing shoreline and land-use changes, and identifying and protecting sensitive habitats for migratory birds and marine mammals.

The Pribilof Islands are in the Bering Sea, approximately 770 mi west-southwest of Anchorage and 250 mi north of the Aleutian Islands. Approximately 3 million seabirds nest on the islands, and nearly 1 million northern fur seals—about 70 percent of the world's northern-fur-seal population—migrate there each year to breed. Other animals on the islands include arctic foxes and herds of reindeer.

The Pribilof Islands were an attractive part of the United States' 1867 purchase of Alaska from Russia, in part because of the significant economic trade activity of northern-fur-seal pelts that were available in abundance on the islands. The islands have been managed by various Federal agencies, most recently by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.

Within the volcanic Pribilof Islands archipelago, the tiny islands of St. George and St. Paul (approximately 35 and 44 mi², respectively) are the only two with human inhabitants; collectively, they are home to the world's largest community of Aleut people. Brought to the islands in the late 1700s to harvest seals for Russian fur hunters, Aleuts have made their home there for more than 200 years, providing labor for both Russian and United States interests in the fur-seal trade during most of that time.

In 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act provided for the transfer of 40 million acres of Alaska's lands back to Alaskan Natives who had occupied and used the land for generations. In 1983, most Federally controlled lands on the Pribilof Islands were designated for transfer to the Aleuts. Conditions for property transfer called for the United States to restore the islands' environmental integrity by removing all debris and contamination associated with government management activities.

NOAA has been charged with cleanup activities on the Pribilof Islands. Although several thousand tons of debris were successfully removed from the islands by the year 2000, residual debris sites and areas of soil contamination remain the focus of present cleanup activities at more than 40 sites on St. George and St. Paul. Restoration efforts on the Pribilofs require hundreds of soil and ground-water samples to evaluate the vertical and horizontal extent of contamination. The locations of these samples, together with those of existing debris fields, cultural features, and natural resources, need to be accurately mapped and recorded to help NOAA successfully track progress on its rehabilitation efforts. Such mapping requires accurate base maps, which did not exist for the islands before the year 2000.

To remedy this lack, the Pribilof Islands Restoration Project initiated a joint project by NOAA and the USGS to develop a suite of standard map products to combine with project-related data and historical information. The resulting integrated, multimedia geographic-information system (GIS) will be used by participating agencies and groups in cleanup activities, resource management, environmental stewardship, and scientific research on the islands.

Producing contaminated-site maps is a critical step in the process of identifying environmentally hazardous areas in relation to such sensitive wildlife areas as seal-breeding colonies, areas of seal distribution and movement, and areas that could be sensitive to the environmental effects of any future contaminant spillage. Additionally, information on fur-seal abundance can be linked to specific geographic locations for use in studying seal-population dynamics and prioritizing future protective measures. These new base maps will also assist researchers in classifying vegetation, analyzing shoreline areas, and classifying land-use changes over time.

To make these map products more useful and meaningful to the Alaskan Native population, the decision was made to ask for local guidance in determining place names for geographic features. A concerted effort was made by the local residents to identify the original Aleut names for various geographic features on both islands. This local contribution helped to create a more realistic product that acknowledges the historical and linguistic importance of the Aleut language and will help preserve it. The Alaska Historical Commission and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names concurred on the significance of this innovative approach and endorsed use of the local names that were provided to the USGS for incorporation into the final map products. This approval allowed for the labeling of geographic features on the maps to be in both English and Aleut.

The new map products, together with the wide variety of digital data accumulated during the project, will be used to restore the environmental integrity of the islands and to identify and protect sensitive habitats for migratory birds and marine mammals. The data are also being shared with Native communities on the islands for land-use purposes, economic-development analysis, education, and natural-resource management.

Related Web Sites
Pribilof Islands Restoration Project
Alaska Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)
Alaska Historical Commission
State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources
U.S. Board on Geographic Names
U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Autonomous Vehicle Studies the Sea Floor

Suwannee River Estuary

Research Ecologically Sensitive Islands in the Bering Sea

Outreach Track Florida's Manatees Via Web Site

Mayor Visits USGS Facility

New Map Poster for Falmouth, MA

Science Teachers Visit Woods Hole

USGS Landsat Images Appear in Textbook

Scientists Give "Telelecture" to Louisiana Students

Early Earth Day in Florida

USGS Landsat Image Featured at Museum

Manheim Lectures in Ireland and Sweden

Meetings Saltwater Intrusion and Coastal Aquifers

Gas Hydrates CODATA

Natural Science and Better Health

Staff & Center News New Chief Scientist for Western Coastal and Marine Team

Mendenhall Fellows Lecture in Reston, VA

Mendenhall Fellow Joins Coral Reef Project

Netherlands Scientist Visits Woods Hole

USGS Employees Find Avocation in Blacksmithing

Publications Manatee Hurricane Survival Paper

May Publications List

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