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AFSC Historical Corner:  The Pribilof Islands Tender Vessels

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Eider, on deck
The Eider on a winter trip to the Pribilofs.
Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1927.
 
 

A "tender" is a dedicated supply vessel used to transport passengers and cargo to and from the Pribilof Islands.

Following the 1867 U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia, the northern fur seal populations on the Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George) were the first natural resource to be harvested in the new territory. In just over 30 years following the acquisition of Alaska, the U.S. Treasury received net revenues from the fur seal industry which more than covered the $7.2 million purchase price.

From 1870 to 1909, reckless commercial harvesting was significantly impacting the seal population on the Pribilofs. Such harvests were carried out, in part, by private companies who leased the islands during this time from the U.S. Government. On 21 April 1910, the U.S. Congress directed the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and Labor to assume immediate total responsibility for the management and harvest of northern fur seals, foxes and other minor fur-bearing animals. As for the previous lessees, this responsibility also extended to the care, education and welfare of the Aleut communities of the isolated Pribilof Islands. Under the Secretary's direction, the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) was assigned administration of the Pribilofs and on 9 May 1910, annual instructions were finalized the Bureau's agent in charge of seal fisheries, Walter I. Lempkey.

 Pribilof Tenders Acquired 1915-64 
(length,  yr built) 
1915 Roosevelt (182 ft, 1905)
1919 Eider (88 ft, 1913)
1930 Penguin (130 ft, 1930)
1948 Dennis Winn (148 ft, 1944)
1950 Penguin II (148 ft, 1944)
1964 Pribilof (223 ft, 1954)

The new duties of BOF included the coordination of transporting cargo and personnel to the Pribilofs and nearby island communities from the supply sources at San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Dutch Harbor and Unalaska (both in Alaska). Initially, Lembkey was tasked with the matter of providing a suitable vessel to serve as a tender for the Pribilofs.

On 17 May 1910, Lembkey left Washington D.C. for San Francisco where, on 26 May, he chartered for $142.50 per day the steamer Homer – a vessel which had hauled sealskins from St. Paul Island in the previous year. Food, clothing, and other supplies for the island inhabitants and workers were purchased and loaded aboard the Homer, which left for the Pribilofs on 11 June 1910.

The Homer would be the first of several dedicated Pribilof Islands tenders to regularly make the long and often rough voyage between the U.S. West Coast and the Bering Sea. During these 5 years, the Homer was also used at times to enforce the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention Act of 1911, which prohibited the pelagic harvest of marine mammals near the Pribilof Islands. In 1914 the base of purchasing annual supplies for the Pribilofs was moved from San Francisco to Seattle and the private steamer Melville Dollar was chartered by the BOF to transport the $40,000 of annual supplies, and passengers, to the islands. In addition to their regular patrol duties, U.S. Coast Guard and Treasury Department ships, and occasionally U.S. Navy vessels, continued to also share in this role of providing supplies for the islands.

  using a skin-boat to unload supplies from ship
Due to the lack of adequate landings at the Pribilofs, the Penguin must anchor offshore St. George Island while a "bidarrah" skin-boat hauls cargo to and from the ship.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1939.

By 1914 the cost of charters reached $250 or more per day, and since 1910 over $100,000 had been spent on trips to the Pribilofs. Over one-third of this cost was estimated to have been incurred from the inefficient manner of transporting supplies between the islands and the ship, anchored offshore due to the lack of adequate landings. To haul the cargo, an expensive rowboat (skin-covered "bidarrah" or "baidar") was used to go back and forth between the ship and shore. Since weather and water conditions were always a factor, this was often a slow and costly process which sometimes required several weeks to complete just the unloading at both islands. Owing to costs, the BOF sought to acquire its own ship dedicated to the service, knowing that the various activities required a large seaworthy vessel for operation in the open and often stormy waters of the Bering Sea. In 1917, the Bureau assigned its own vessel, the Roosevelt, to this duty for the first time.

The Pribilof tenders routinely carried various cargo (e.g., lumber, machinery, tractors, building materials, mail, salt, coal, food, general supplies, etc.) and passengers (doctors, dentists, teachers, employees, dignitaries, workers, store keepers, etc.) to and from the Pribilof Islands and other nearby Alaskan communities. Their arrivals were highly anticipated and met with enthusiasm by the local residents – any delays resulted in much anxiety. On each return trip south from the islands, the vessels would haul valuable seal skins and the byproducts from the harvests such as seal oil, meal, and bones (for conversion into fertilizer).

Eventually, the U.S. Government's control over operations on the Pribilof Islands began to decline, and in 1975 the Agency's last tender, the Pribilof, was sold. As one facet of the Fur Seal Act of 1966, all Native people on the islands were to become self-sufficient and locally self-governed – processes already in motion on St. Paul Island. During the 1970s, the Agency – now the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) – began transferring the fur seal operations along with federal land and buildings to the local communities.

Featured in this section are the six federal vessels which served as Pribilof tenders for 60 years, owned by the U.S. Fisheries Service under its various names – Bureau of Fisheries (1903-39), Fish and Wildlife Service (1940-55), Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (1956-69, USFWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (1970-, NOAA).

Restoring Control
As a result of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, thirteen Native corporations were formed to represent the various tribes through land ownership and management, employment, resource development, business ventures, etc. In addition, certain government lands were transferred to Native Alaskan

On 13 October 1983, the entire control of the commercial fur seal industry and management of the Pribilof Islands was relinquished by NMFS. With the exception of federal facilities and lands (such as seal and bird rookeries), the administration of the islands was then assumed by the local Native communities. After the expiration of the 1957 Interim Convention on Conservation of the North Pacific Fur Seals in 1984, the fur seal industry collapsed and the Pribilovians struggled with what to do next. After 14 October 1984, fur seals (and sea lions) were harvested only for Native subsistence. Because of their location, the Aleuts soon learned to profit from the highly productive local crab and fish resources.

Through cooperation with tribal governments, NMFS continued the scientific study of fur seals and their harvest on the islands. NMFS also retained ownership of some land and historical structures. Near the end of the 1990s and into the 2000s, NOAA took responsibility for the environmental restoration of the Pribilof Islands. Nearly 8,000 tons of debris which had accumulated over the years were removed. Other work entailed contaminated soil clean-up, ground reseeding, developing of new solid waste landfills, and the restoration of some historical buildings.
Unfortunately, the available history for several of these old vessels is sparse. Though a few boats are known to have been restored, and still exist as of 2013, the fate of many others, especially after 1940, is unknown. Your help is needed in providing the missing pieces and historical stories for these government fisheries vessels that had operated in Alaska. You are welcome to contact  Victor Lundquist  (afsc.historian@noaa.gov).
 

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