Seabird Youth Network

St. George Island landscape: tundra and three white houses on foreground, high cliffs on the background, waves are breaking on shore in front of the houses houses
St. George Island

photo by Ann Harding

Over 300 miles from the Alaskan mainland, nearly as isolated and remote as any northern island can get, the Pribilof Islands poke up from a small volcanic chain beneath the sea. During the summer months they are usually shrouded in a heavy, chilly fog that hangs on this cliff-wrapped, tundra landscape. Safely hidden in that fog, however, lie over 2 million nesting seabirds and half of the world’s breeding population of northern fur seals.

In the scientific and conservation communities, seabirds are used as important indicators of a multitude of issues including climate change, marine temperatures fluctuations and consequent prey range shifts, pollution, commercial fishery activity and more. Their wide geographic spread and diverse marine-based diet make them excellent at informing scientists about changes in their environment. In the Bering Sea particularly, as sea temperatures rise in response to climate change, due to starvation as their fish and squid-based prey has moved elsewhere.

Eleven different seabird species commonly breed on the Pribilof Islands, and many researchers and birdwatchers visit the islands for the seabirds specifically. Seabirds have played and continue to play an important role in local indigenous subsistence and culture. The Unangan population of the Pribilof Islands traditionally harvested seabirds for food, tools and clothing. Unangan birdskin parkas are famed for warmth and comfort. Numerous traditional tales and stories celebrate people’s special relationships to seabirds and knowledge of their ecology.
three children sitting high on a cliff facing the ocean and observing birds
High point of Seabird Camp:  observing birds  on the cliffs behind the village of St. George

photo by Ann Harding

The cultural and ecological significance of seabirds and their increasing vulnerability led to the creation of the Seabird Youth Network (SYN) in 2012. The Seabird Youth Network is a partnership between the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Pribilof School District, St. George Island Traditional Council, St. George Institute, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, and the wider scientific community (http://www.seabirdyouth.org). The Seabird Youth Network aims to support youth of the Pribilof Islands by building their skills for the collection of long-term seabird monitoring data on the Pribilof Islands. The Seabird Youth Network introduces youth to careers in science and natural resource management, increases their sense of ownership and understanding of local resources, trains them in marketable multi-media skills and provides education around seabird ecology, research and conservation.
Students walk towards high cliffs covered with nesting birds
Bird rookery on Bering Island, Russia

Photo by Polina Avdeenko

In 2015, the Seabird Youth Network began working with the Shared Beringian Heritage Program to initiate a long-term connection between the youth of the Pribilof Islands in Alaska and the Commander Islands in the Russian Aleutians. Despite 900 miles separating these island groups, they have a lot in common. Both the Commander and Pribilof Islands are vital breeding grounds for northern fur seals and seabirds. The first permanent settlements on both islands were Russian fur seal harvesting outposts. In the early 19th century, Unangan peoples, indigenous to the Aleutian Island chain in the Bering Sea, were forcibly relocated to the Commander and Pribilof Islands by the Russian-American Company to work at these outposts. The Pribilof Islands were bought from Russian by the U.S. government in 1867 within the larger purchase of the now State of Alaska. Today, there are only two communities on the Pribilof Islands: St. George with approximately 100 residents and St. Paul, population 480. The only settlement in the Commanders is the village of Nikolskoye, home to 800 people. Despite these shared ecological and socio-cultural histories, the physical distance between the Commander and Pribilof Islands’, their isolated locations, and the need to obtain visas for international travel make it difficult for these two communities to come together. The Seabird Youth Network saw their program as an opportunity to connect the youth of these communities in a way that encourages personal and educational growth and development.The Seabird Youth Network Beringia program is a community based project with a three-pronged approach: seabird conservation; cultural sharing, and an exchange visit.

The Shared Beringian Heritage Program funding and support enabled the Seabird Youth Network to design a curriculum as an “Introduction to Seabirds”, including information on breeding and feeding ecology, conservation, and why we study seabirds. The curriculum was designed for 5/6th grade, with activities that can be adapted for older or younger students making it more appealing to rural communities with multi-age classrooms such as the Pribilof School District and Nikolskoye. It aligns with Next Generation Science Standards and Alaska Science Standards, and is available in Russian and English: http://seabirdyouth.org/seabirds/.The contents include seven, fifty-minute lessons accompanied by hands-on activities and Powerpoint presentations.
Hand-made poster with seabirds and inscription "Welcome" in Russian
Poster made by St. Paul students to welcome their Russian friends

Photo by Ram Papish

The Ethno-ecological tent camp “Aglakh” has been held annually on Bering Island in the Commanders since 2006. Every July, up to 12 students spend 2 weeks walking across Bering Island to learn more about their Island and its’ wildlife. Camp activities usually include marine birds counts and identification, landscape studies, zoology, botany, culture and history. Every year students also visit Commander Bay (named after Commander Vitus Bering) where they learn the history of the second Kamchatka expedition. Annual Seabird camps have been held on the Pribilof Islands since 2013. Over time the camps have evolved, but there are certain things you will always find. They are week-long events jam-packed with learning and fun for all involved. For example, the second day of Seabird Camp 2019 saw students begin the day with seabird identification coloring projects, a field trip to the playground for a seabird survival game to learn the different obstacles seabird chicks face, rehearsal of seabird-based plays, painting of props for the seabird play at the end of the week, a field trip led by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to learn about seabird catching techniques and the creation of drawings to send to pen-pals on the Commander Islands. In 2017, three students and a teacher were able to travel to St. Paul Island from Nikolskoye for the annual Seabird Camp to help strengthen relationships and communication between their two home communities.The pen-pal and student exchange aspects of the Seabird Youth Network have been critical and some of the most enjoyable parts of the program. Letters written by youth are translated, scanned and sent through email, allowing youth to connect with each other. Fourteen-year-old Artem from Nikolskoye (on the Commander Islands) wrote back to his pen-pal Chauncey saying:“You write that you go anywhere on the island without your parents worrying about your safety. We also don’t have restrictions... In our village we also know each other and live together doing no harm to anyone.”In anticipation of the 2017 Seabird camp, Brittney from the Pribilof’s wrote to her Commander Island pen-pal, “I can not wait for summer and your arrival. Some Russian words I would like to learn are “best friends”.This exchange goes far beyond letters and emails. The Seabird Youth Network has an extensive website and blog where the curriculum, videos, recordings, photos, blog posts and other resources are all hosted and compiled. The blog allows youth to explore art made by each other, videos made during seabird camps, an interactive Google Map where youth can explore information about different communities on the islands, Unangan song and dance, traditional recipes and so much more.
The initial project was such a success that the Seabird Youth Network was awarded cooperative agreement funding once again from the Shared Beringian Heritage Program for three more years beginning in 2020 to continue this popular work. The Seabird Youth Network hopes that sometime in the next three years (depending on the course of the COVID-19 pandemic) they will be able to bring youth from the Pribilof Islands to Nikolskoye to attend Bering Island’s annual etno-ecological camp, “Camp Aglakh”. In addition to building communication and understanding among the youth of these communities, it is also important to establish relationships between biologists in Alaska and the Commander Islands working on shared seabird conservation concerns. The Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the Commander Islands Nature Reserve (CINR) share a common goal: protection of marine resources on lands and waters within both areas. The areas have common threats of climate change, oil spills and other contaminants, introduced invasive species, and changes in marine food webs due to man's activities. A biologist from AMNWR will join the youth visit to the Commander Islands. The visit will include meetings between biologists from the CINR and AMNWR, a field trip to a seabird colony, a shared community event in Nikolskoye, and the creation of a public mural symbolizing the unity between the nations of Beringia.
By Maya Greally,
DCSP@UW Scholar and 2020 Beringia Intern
Hand-painted Seabird Camp t-shirt
Hand-painted Seabird Camp T-shirt

photo by Ann Harding

Last updated: September 28, 2020