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They Need Your Help!

Winter’s night on the Commander Islands ( pic. Sergey Pasenuk )

Text by Dr. Vladimir Sevostianov

The Commander Islands, located in the Bering Sea (Northern Part of the Pacific Ocean) are unique by Nature and culturally diverse part of the World. This Booklet is devoted to saving them, because they desperately need your help and your active care. Please, take a tour through it and you will understand the beauty and importance of this pristine area for sure.

Where are the Commander Islands?

Please, have a look at the map of the Northern part of the Pacific Ocean and You will easily notice between the two continents, Eurasia and America the chain of the Islands. It’s the Aleutians. Two small Islands closing the Aleutian’s chain on the east and Kamchatka on the west are the Bering and Medniy islands. That’s right, it’s the Commander Islands Archipelago.

So, geographically the Commander Islands are located approximately 200 miles (333 km) from the Attu Islands off Aleutians in the Bering Sea, about 1000 miles (3350 km) from Anchorage, Alaska and 90 miles from Kamchatka ( Russia ). It means — 166 E; 55 N.

 Map of the Commander Islands ( pic. Sergey Pasenuk )

Why they so unique?

As you know for now, the Commander Islands, better known as Bering and Medniy Islands, played an important role in Vitus Bering's expedition to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Even at the middle of the 18th century, nobody knew about the strait separating America from Asia as well as about the terrain which lies east of Kamchatka.

That’s why, on May, 29, 1741, the "Saint Peter" and "Saint Paul" packet boats left the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (Avacha bay) and sailed into Pacific. It was the Second Russian Great Kamchatka expedition. Vitus Bering,Captain-Commander was the head of it. Captain Alexsey Chirikov and German naturalist George Steller was also among its participants.

On their way back from the America, the boat headed by Vitus Bering was caught by severe storm that lasted for 17 days. In the 4th November 1741, the crew noticed high shores at the distance. At the beginning, the land resembled as Kamchatka, but after examination of the shores they sadly recognize that the vessel landed to the completely the unknown Island. The seamen were doomed during the winter time on the unfriendly desert shore. Only 46 persons out of 70 stayed alive. Vitus Bering died on 8 December 1741. Alive members of the "Saint Peter" crew decided to name the discovered Island after their Commander.

Ethnographical and Archeological aspects:

The Aleuts appeared on the Commander Islands early in the 19th century. They were settlers from the Aleutian Islands. Most of the Aleuts inhabiting Bering Island came from Atka Island (USA in present time), and those who lived on Medniy Island were from Attu Island (USA in present time). Different places of the original settlers was reflected in both the linguistic and cultural distinctions of the two Islands. For many years they intensively mixed with some others nationals (Koriak, Russian, Aiynu…). After a while, the aboriginal people on the Commander prefer to call themselves as a Creoles. So, the culture of the Commander Aleuts is really uncommon.

The Nikolskoye village (Bering Island, founded in 1826) and Preobrazhenskoye village (Medniy Island) are the largest settlements on the Commander Islands. More than twenty wooden houses were built by the Hutchinson Company (USA) in Nikolskoye village in the second half of the 18th century. Several buildings of that period have been preserved in the village till present.

On the Medniy Islands still might be found the old cemetery with graves of Aleutian people and Russians with some beautiful remainders of the gravestones.

On the Bering Islands (Commander Bay) are the most famous memorial complex of the graves Vitus Bering and some other participants of his crew.

Nowadays on the Commander Islands exists only Nikolskoye village. It is the administrative center of the Aleutian national area with the small population of the people — about 500 — 600. Most of them unemployed, others are engaged in a hunt and fishery. The small part of their population works in the Nature Reserve.

By the way, the Commander Islands are really one and native area in Russia for this small population of aboriginal people.

Pavel Zaykov — the old Aleut from Medniy Island ( pic. Sergey Pasenuk )

Biodiversity aspect:

Actually, the waters between Russia and USA (Alaska and Aleutians) lies a sea so rich in wildlife and so varied in coastal and subsea habitats that it’s considered one of most biologically productive and diverse marine environments. Covering almost a million square miles of subarctic waters, the Bering Sea supports vast populations of fish and shellfish, birds from every continents and countless numbers of the whales, porpoises, dolphins, walruses, sea lions, fur seals, sea otters and seals.

But only on the Commander Islands we can found the full picture of that.

The main reason are in unique combination some geological and hydrological factors around this small area.

Climate of the Islands is typically oceanic and high breadths. Average temperature of the most cold month (January) a minus of 5,4 degrees Celsius, warmest (August) plus of 10,4 degrees Celsius. Average of cloudiness is 81 percents. The high humidity of air is characteristic. The sea near Commander Islands is quietest in summer and most stormy from November to March. The force of a wind during storm quite often reaches 35 — 40 meters per second. The ice around the Commander Islands has been not formed at all, because of the warm ocean currents, which reaching the Islands from the Japanese sea.

Also, near Commander Islands there are a few huge and active under water volcanoes.

All together its form the most favorable conditions for phito and zoo plankton which formed the living base for the other high range organisms at the Ecosystem.

It’s the main factors of the huge biodiversity of the seaweed near the coastal line of the Islands too. Actually, it’s one of the richest area of seaweed by species and biomass in the World.

Furthermore, the Commander and Aleutian Islands connect Asia and Northern America. In fact, its form a bridge which ensured the dispersal of plants and animals. Flora and fauna of the Islands are represented by queer combination of species of the Asian and American origin. That’s why the Commanders are the extreme eastern point of the range of Asian species.

Migration routes of many whale species pass along the Islands shores. In the coastal waters, the fattening or wintering areas of 15 toothed whale species and 6 whale-bone whale species (sperm whales, killer whales, Bering Sea and Cuvier's beaked whales, porpoises, lesser finbacks, seiwhales, finwhale, humpback and northern right whales) are located.

189 bird species were registered on the Commander Islands;57 of them were proved to nest there. The birds associated with water, sea colonial birds in particular, are most abundant and diverse on the Islands.

Many inhibitions of the Commander Islands are rare and listed in the Russian and IUCN Red Data Books. They are harbor seals, sea otters, Arctic foxes (subspecies from Medniy Island), almost all whale species, glaucous-wnged gulls, red legged kittiwakes, peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons and emperor geese.

Almost all known marine mammal’s families are represented there. Sea-otters (about 4-4,5 thousands), harbor (flower) seals and largas (about 10-15 thousands) are the residents of the Islands; rookeries of northern fur seals (about 250 thousands) and Steller's sea lions (about 5 thouthands) are being restored.

The terrestrial vegetation of the Commander Islands is extremely original. The mountain tundra, covering most of the territory, developed in the absence of permafrost. This is not characteristic of such communities. In addition, it has been never seriously affected by the vegetarian animals (rodents and ungulates). These animals do actually create the appearance of tundra on the mainland. Mushrooms are also abundant on the Commanders.

The landscape of the Commander Islands is really impressive. Unusual coastal cliffs and rocky outcroppings, vast plain tundra, low mountains with steep slopes and narrow valleys of multiple rivers and streams with dozen of beautiful falls. Unstable marine scenarios and even frequent fogs create particularly attractive images of the Commanders. 

Ecological and Nature Protection aspects:

The history of mastering and exploiting the Commander Islands is abundant in irreversible losses. Merciless whaling, sealing, and harvest of the sea birds actually began since the moment of the islands discovery. In 1755, a more thirteen years after the islands were discovered, a trader by the name of Piotr Yakovlev visited the Commander Islands and wrote a report about the urgency of banning the manatee harvest. His warning was neglected and the last sea cow was killed in 1768.

It’s really most of the dramatic point why the nature of the northern insular communities is extremely vulnerable. Any imprudent human interference in this fragile world may result in severe deterioration of its harmony and unity.

Since 1958 Russian Government highly prohibit the 30 miles area the sea water around the Commander Islands for commercial fishing. As a result, more then 40 years this area doesn’t have so distraction influence from it. In mean time it’s only one area for whole Beringia indeed. That’s why, from the point of view to further safety and study natural marine eco-system, the Commander Islands extremely impotent too.

In 1993, the Commander Islands Nature Preserve was established. By Russian federal law, a large percentage of the islands, as well as a 30-mile radius of ocean around them, became primary conservation areas. In the same year, the Gore-Chernomirdin Commission (USA — Russia) highlighted the Commander Islands Nature Preserve as a key zone for conservation in the North Pacific. It’s well display how the Commander Islands play the impotent role for the USA, Russia, Japan, Canada, China, Korea and many others.

The World Human Being aspect:

In the mean time, a few an American’s companies have been doing some eco-tourist expedition at the North Pacific.

The first one was “Zegrahm & Eco Expedition” (Seattle, USA). In 1997 they organized some short landing on the Commander Islands with huge success. After all, another an American firm such the “Society Expeditions” (Seattle, USA), was following.

They have been doing some successful eco-tourist expeditions at the North Pacific, included the Commander Islands in their distention from Japan to Alaska. The Commander Islands were always high light of the trip for all people around the World indeed!

The wildlife, unique harmony of all landscapes of the tundra North are represented on these relatively small pieces of land. A traveler sees, or at least hears the ocean in any point of the islands. In any season, the dramatic beauty of the islands will take your breath away, and they will remain with you forever.

Spiritual aspect:

Please, have a look at this small letter. Actually, it’s only one from the many…From people who have been touching the Commander Islands more closely and after that try to display their an inmost thoughts:

My dear Friend,

Please, stay well, when you will begin to read this letter. Even for me it's really strange... Frankly speaking I still don't realize it myself — how it happened? From where come the inspiration?

Anyway, I spent more then 20 years working as an ecologist and marine mammal’s biologist on the Commander Islands. Well, during that time, it was the first chance for me to feel and touch the Mother Nature by heart and soul so deeply, that I never ever felt...Just remember one fall day on the Commander. I was alone for a month and wrote my thesis in a small cabin. Far from anybody... with only my dog, Yukon...

Sunset was amazing... Under the cliff I stayed in silent... and all of a sudden, like never before, I started to feel that I was face to face with the world, a part of all that surrounded me at that time. I was not a stranger anymore... I was like a small organic piece of the birds, the ocean, the sun... all Nature! In that same way, I felt that I would be forever!!! So, it was... An unforgettable experience, which, luckily, has continued up until this time in life!

Just before going to sleep, up here in Canada, I read the Bible and try to recall the film by Andrey Tarkovskiy named “Andrey Rublev”... It certainly made a huge impression on me... and now to find from the Holy book some words, which that films hero had spoken...

“If I speak in the tongues of man and of angels but do not have Love, I have become a sounding brass or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophesying and an acquainted with all the sacred secrets and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to transplant mountains, but do not have Love, I am nothing. And if I give all my belongings to feed others, and if I hand over my body, that I may boast, but do not have Love, I am not profited at all. Love is long-suffering and kind. Love is not jealous, it does not brag, does not get puffed up, does not behave indecently, does not look for its own interests, does not become provoked. If does not keep account of the injury. It does not rejoice over unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never falls. But whether there are gifts of prophesying, they will be done away with; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will be done away with.” (I Corinthians 13: 1—8)

The famous American writer Ernest Thompson Seton, who wrote wonderful stories about Nature, said many years ago: "I came to know how terrible it was to feel thirsty. I've been trying to dig some wells, so that from them other people could drink too." That's why I'm sure that our efforts to preserve the unique environment of the Commander Islands is so important for future generations. They are a way to get closer to our personal God.

Just have a look outside and inside — still Alive Nature on the Commander Islands, Truth Culture, Friends and close People — should be tern up our inner world towards the feelings: try to build up the Harmony for everyone on the Earth. So, it's the main point of this letter ...

Are you tired after reading this? If not, I'm so confident that this small letter was written by You too!

Why the Commander Islands in Danger?

As you may be aware, the number of sea otters has dramatically declined during the last five years in some parts of the Northern Pacific.

At this time, we can foresee a really catastrophical reduction in the population of sea otters near the Aleutian Islands. What is even more worrying is that they seem to be disappearing for unknown reasons.

The same situation is occurring with Steller Sea Lions and some other species which are in the top level of the feeding chain.

But most dangerous signal we had in 2000 — 2002 when on the Commander Islands fond on the beach six dead whales.

For the time being is a very dangerous circumstances with the Arctic fox (Medniy’s, native subspecies — the biggest one in the World). You can hardly imagine, that it might be completely destroyed by extensive epizootic lasting for the last 20 years.

All these facts clearly display that something is drastically wrong with the natural functions in the whole ecosystem of the Bering Sea.

I'm quite confident that the Commander Islands will be a most significant focal point of the North Pacific, for better understanding the changes which have been occurring in the ecosystem of Beringia.

Also, quite tense situation with poaching of the sea otters on the Bering Islands. Unfortunately, the Commander Nature Preserve doesn't have enough money for protection of the sea otter and in recent years about 200-300 animals (may be more) have been taken by poachers. The prize of the sea otter's skins on the black market in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy could be around 500-1200 US dollars. Most of the skins going by illegal way to China and South Korea. (This unofficial evidences were take from business minded people in Moscow and Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy).

Even though, under Russian federal law, a large percentage of the Islands, as well as a 30-mile radius of ocean around them, became primary conservation areas and according to the Gore-Chernomirdin Commission (USA — Russia) highlighted as a key zone for conservation in the North Pacific, the ocean near the Commander Nature Reserve year by year has been the area for very intensive, illegal commercial activity. Mainly by Russian and Japanese industrial flit.

For the last nine years, under the auspices of a scientific program, fishing lobbyists from Russian Far East and Moscow have adopted a complex monitoring system in the protected ocean waters of the Commanders. In actual fact, this pseudo-scientific program has allowed commercial fishing in these waters, with no system of monitoring or control. The projected five-year goal is to fish about 33,000 tons of mostly perch, halibut, cod, crab and squid from the area. Some fishing by trawler has also been allowed. This extreme decrease in the fish population could ultimately decimate the marine ecosystem, not to mention the impact on the feeding supply of animals such as the Steller's sea lion, fur seal, sea otter, and many species of whale. Despite major protests from local scientists and the general public, commercial fishing in the Commander Islands has been operating since 1995 with the permission of Russian conservation organizations.

The fishing activity did cease for a short time in 1996 after the Russian branch of Green Peace confronted the government with an official declaration that the non-scientific nature of the fishing in the Commanders would result in the destruction of the ocean shelf. However, since 1998, financial pressures are once again mounting to allow commercial fishing. Now, more than ever, the Commander Islands are in need of help.

It's approve in general situation for the Bering Sea. According to the press release dated 5 December 2001, Greenpeace USA, the American Oceans Campaign (AOC) and the Sierra Club called on the U.S.'s North Pacific Fishery Management Council to put the needs of the ocean ecosystem before the fishing industry by significantly altering fishing practices. The call came after the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)'s announcement the previous week that it would present the Council with a framework for revising the plan to protect the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska ecosystems. Phil Kline of AOC commented "If you are not alarmed by the serious declines of Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), otters, fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), birds, and other marine life in the North Pacific, you're not paying attention. Industrial fishing removes huge amounts of fish that are important prey for other fish and marine animals, and these removals effect the entire health of the food chain. “A few days later, on 10 December, the Council decided to adopt one of the largest quotas in the fishery's history for the 2002 Bering Sea pollock season.

The Commander Nature Reserve itself couldn’t stop this process because it doesn’t have normal financial support from the Russian Government.

Unfortunately, the strains of Russia's political and economic pressures have more recently given rise to environmental concern in the area. 

What the scientists and the officials can do to Help?

It’s might be only one point to more intensive work for representation and demonstration the true knowledge about Commander Islands a front of the Governments, Industrial firms, Social and Charitable organizations, Colleagues and People all over around the World.

The Commander Islands are really small and unique area and its have been playing extremely impotent role in Beringia Ecosystem indeed. It’s very obvious that they need more help and protection under international low ( UNESCO ).

By join-venture efforts based on the activity from Biodiversity Conservation Center (Moscow, Russia), WWF, Commander Islands & BC Nature Conservation and Preservation Association continue to build the complex, scientific programs for saving Nature and Harmony Life the local people on the Commander Islands.

Eventually, all their efforts in this field have been rising up to the special programs for the Commander Islands:

Conservation and Sustainable-use of Coastal Biodiversity in Russia’s Commander (Komandorsky) Islands.”

What change will the program have brought about?

To establish the Komandorsky Biosphere Reserve in accordance with accepted international criteria. By the end of the project, a reinvigorated Komandorsky Biosphere Reserve will be characterized by stakeholders who are actually developing sustainable livelihoods for their families and supporting a «man and the biosphere approach» to conservation of the biological diversity in the Commander Islands.


Please, examining this brief introduction of the Program:

Expected Outcomes:

1. The conservation of globally significant biodiversity in this area

2. Management plan for the islands is agreed upon by all stakeholders and is under implementation (this includes the demarcation of protected area boundaries in a way that is simple, understandable, and easy to manage. Education and training of the local residents for their future work in the reserve and implementation of alternative livelihoods, as well as support for appropriate traditional economic activities, etc, will be additional activities.

3. Local inhabitants successfully applying more sustainable fishing and grazing methodologies, as well as successfully developing new, alternative livelihoods.

4. A strengthened legislative and economic framework in place providing local incentives for biodiversity conservation and sustainable resource use;

5. A system of ecological monitoring including biodiversity monitoring;

6. Increased local awareness on biodiversity protection.

Planned Activities to Achieve Outcomes:

1. Strengthen management of Biosphere Reserve: fine-tune and implement innovative management plan for the biosphere reserve, especially priority habitats;

2. Capacity building for protected area management: fine-tune and implement innovative management plan for the PAs;

3. In support of adaptive management, conduct modest targeted research program to identify priority habitats and monitoring program to define baseline biodiversity situation and measure key indicators of ecosystem structure and function;

4. Develop an open, participatory management process in partnership with local stakeholders;

5. To update and implement a plan allowing local coastal fishing in a 5 mile radius within the marine section of the biosphere reserve while at the same time aimed at eliminating the large-scale fishery inside the 30-mile Komandorsky reserve zone;

6. To enable local fishergroups to improve their salmon catching activities in the lakes and rivers within the buffer and transition zones;

7. Identify appropriate and viable approach to encouraging the development of alternative livelihoods by local stakeholders (i.e. eco-tourism, small fish-farms, local seafood processing, and home vegetable gardening). Introduce new technologies; demonstrate sustainable-use methodologies.

8. Update and implement environmental education programs for local stakeholder groups;

9. Implement technical and capacity training programs for local authorities and residents;

10. Reform the existing legal framework so as to support updated biodiversity conservation and development activities;

11. Develop effective cooperative program with protected areas/specially managed areas on islands in the U.S. part of the Aleutian Island chain and Alaska.

In fact, this process for realization the program may be most typical mark for the present condition of Beringia Ecosystem in all aspects, because the Commander Islands itself might be a keystone of that.

Aboriginal people like Aleut and some others have lived here for centuries and therefore another important aspect of this Program will be to help these people.

What can You do to Help personally?

Please, join the Commander Islands & BC Nature Protection and Conservation Association and give them some political, spiritual and financial support!

Please, visit their Web Sites in the Net and tell this unique information your friends and close people:

www.az.com/~katrinat/island/ ; www.bering.narod.ru ; www.seal.by.ru

For more exact information and plans for actions, please touch us by post mail and E-Mail:

Commander Islands & BC Nature Protection and Conservation Association

President: Dr. Vladimir Sevostianov

This is professional, non-governmental organization (NGO), was organized in 1999. The main goal of the Association is to provide some urgent help for the local community of people on the Commander Islands and conservation of Nature.

P.O. Box 5482, Victoria, BC, Canada V8R 6S4

E-Mail: seaotter3@hotmail.com

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