Ecosystems Fisheries-Oceanography Coordinated Investigations
Photos pertaining to FOCI studies in Alaskan waters.

Bering Sea Ice Expedition
Questions and Answers


What is the human history of St. Matthews Island?  Do people live there today?  from Michelle in Shoreline, Washington (4/19/2007)

St. Matthew Island is uninhabited, and is part of the Bering Sea Unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (1) in the north-central Bering Sea shelf at 60°33'N, 172°42'W (map). It is subarctic tundra with freshwater lakes and streams, beaches, and shear cliffs. Mostly mosses and lichens grow here (3). Located nearby are two smaller islands, Hall and Pinnacle. The Islands have large seabird populations, one of the few colonies of Northern Fulmars, and is the whole breeding range of McKay Bunting (1,2).

In 1874 a scientist working in the Pribilof Islands, H.W. Eliott, sailed to St. Matthew, surveying the island for nine days and noting an abundance of polar bears (5). In 1899 St. Matthew Island and the neighboring Islands were visited by the Harriman Expedition, Harriman a railroad magnate from New York who brought an entourage of well-regarded artists and scientists of the time including naturalist John Muir and photographer Edward S. Curtis. Journals, letters and photographs from this expedition can be found online (listed below).

The islands were protected in 1909 as part of the Bering Sea Bird Reservation (3), and in 1916 G.Dallas Hanna visited, representing the the U.S. Biological Survey. His observations, published in an article in 1920, include birds, mammals, geology, ice, flora and terrain, and is an interesting read for its descriptions and lists of animals (3). He states that in 1916, St. Matthew remained in the ice pack until mid-June, but was accessible by July. Hanna refers to the 1874 visit by Elliott and Lieutanant Maynard (USN). He reported a "tradition" of old of visits by Russians who were run off by polar bear during the time Russia owned the territory, and he said that few if any polar bears were on the Island at the time of his visit due to hunting - probably by passing ships.

In 1943 the U.S. Coast Guard created and manned a station on St. Matthew with about 19 people (2). In 1944, twenty-nine reindeer fron Nunivak Island were introduced to St. Matthew by the Coast Guard (4). The island was abandoned not long after its occupation, near the end of World War II. Those few reindeer created a population explosion on St. Matthew, expanding to an astounding count of 6000 by 1963 before there was a massive die-off and decline. Forty-two reindeer were counted in 1966. The die-off was probably due to overgrazing, lack of food, overpopulation and a very severe winter in 1963-1964. By the 1980's there were no longer reindeer on the island.

From the information I have gathered, mostly from the Web, It looks as though St. Matthew Island's recent history shows sporatic visitors, and a brief inhabitation in the mid-1940's. Generally,though, the Island has been uninhabited for the last century. Look at the list below to find good stories and further information on St. Matthews Island.


--Peggy Sullivan, NOAA/PMEL/EcoFOCI

   Seattle, Washington

(1) Bering Sea Wilderness,
(2) Univ.of Alaska Fairbanks, "The Birds of St. Matthew Island..."
(3) JSTOR article from 1920 Journal of Mammalogy - thanks to JSTOR Archive for this old and interesting article .
  Citation: Mammals of the St. Matthew Island, Bering Sea, G. Dallas Hanna, Journal of Mammalogy, Vol. 1, No. 3. (May, 1920), pp. 118-122.
(4) Univ.of Alaska, Fairbanks, Geophysical Inst., Science Forum article #1672
(5) US Fish & Wildlife Service, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge; history 1800's
(6) Wikipedia on St.Matthew and Harriman Expedition
HARRIMAN Expedition of 1899


I am curious about the species of seabirds in the Bering sea at this time of the year.  When does the breeding season for the Bering Sea birds start/end?  Also, I am curious if any of these species are endangered.  from Karl in North Carolina (4/12/2007)

Hello from the Bering Sea.

We're surveying birds from the bridge of the USCGC Healy right now. It's pretty quite out here bird-wise, although that will change as we approach St. Lawrence Island.

In April, birds are still at sea, away from breeding colonies. Species that don't breed here haven't arrived from the south for the summer. Some of the more common birds in the Bering Sea at this time are Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, Glaucous-winged gull, Glaucous Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Northern Fulmar. Around the Aleutian Islands and farther north at St. Lawrence Island there are also lots of Tufted Puffins, Crested Auklets, and Least Auklets. Those and others will start heading to their breeding sites about late April and early May. Although it varies among species, many birds will lay eggs in June, raise their chicks throughout July and August, then disperse to winter feeding areas. A few species will not fledge chicks until September.

In addition to 'seabirds', there are 'seaducks' that breed throughout northern Alaska, but spend winters at sea. Among these are Black Scoters, Common Eiders, Spectacled Eiders, and Steller's Eiders. The last two are listed under the Threatened and Endangered Species Act, because of their drastic declines in numbers.

As summer approaches, birds from the southern hemisphere,who have finished breeding during their summer, arrive to feed in the rich Bering Sea waters. These include Sooty Shearwaters, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Black-footed Albatross, Laysan Albatross, and the Short-tailed Albatross. The Short-tailed Alabatross is listed as Endangered, and there are only a few thousand that breed on islands off of Japan.

For more information you can also check out the USFWS or USGS web sites.

I hope this is a good start for your curiosity.

Kathy Kuletz, USFWS
Anchorage, Alaska



NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration