The Port of St. Paul lies on a lonely island, one of the Pribilof Islands, off Alaska's western coast. The nearest port to the Port of St. Paul is Dutch Harbor some 238 nautical miles (424 kilometers or 263 miles by air). The Port of Providenija in Russia is 473 nautical miles (824 kilometers or 512 miles by air) to the northwest of the Port of St. Paul. Formed by volcanic eruptions, the island of St. Paul covers 104 square kilometers (40 square miles).
The Port of St. Paul was home to just over 530 people at the 2000 US Census, 86% of them Native Alaskans. The Port of St. Paul supports the fishing fleet of the Central Bering Sea and is home to seafood processing plants and offshore processors. A reindeer herd shares the island, which is also home to fur seal rookeries and over 200 species of nesting birds. Many residents rely on subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering for their livelihoods.
In the distant past, indigenous Aleuts came to St. Paul Island to hunt. No evidence of permanent settlements has been found in the Port of St. Paul area.
Traditional Aleut accounts describe the first Russian fur traders arriving at St. George Island in 1786. In 1788, the Russian-American Company enslaved and moved Aleuts from the Aleutian Island chain and Siberia to St. Paul and St. Peter Islands to collect seal furs. Descendants of these involuntary residents still live on the islands today.
The purchase of Alaska by the United States in 1867 had little effect on the daily lives on the residents of the Port of St. Paul. In 1870, the government gave a 20-year sealing lease to the Alaska Commercial Company who traded seal furs with the Aleuts for food, medical care, and housing. Unfortunately, years of hunting left the fur seal population very small. The community of the Port of St. Paul was burdened by poverty.
In 1910, private leasing on the islands ended with the Fur Seal Act, and the communities and seals on the islands were transferred to the authority of the US Bureau of Fisheries. Difficult poverty continued for the Probilof Aleuts. Working conditions were terrible, and social and racial segregation clearly separated the people.
During the Second World War, when the Imperial Japanese Army threatened to invade the Aleutian Islands, the Aleuts were moved to Admiralty Island in Funter Bay as residents of the Bering Sea were evacuated. The Aleuts from the Port of St. Paul were housed in an abandoned cannery and mine camp. They remained in the camp until 1944. It was 1979 before the Aleuts were compensated ($8.5 million) for the unjust treatment they had received from 1870 to 1946.
In 1983, Congress amended the Fur Seal Act, ending government control of commercial seal harvesting. The federal government also left the island, and local organizations became responsible for community services and fur seal management. The federal government provided $12 million to the Port of St. Paul to help develop the local economy.
Commercial harvesting of fur seals has been prohibited in the Port of St. Paul since 1985. Except for subsistence purposes, people are not allowed to own fur seal pelts. Today, sharing seal and halibut is a focus of Port of St. Paul culture, as these are exchanged with other communities for smoked or salted salmon.
The Pribilof Islands Aleut Communities of St. Paul and St. George Islands is a federally-recognized tribe that is largely responsible for the administration of the Port of St. Paul. The vast majority of the Port of St. Paul's population is Aleut, and the Russian Orthodox Church still plays a major role in community life. Residents live on halibut, reindeer, and marine invertebrate species as well as on berries and plants.