Commander Islands Reserve
General Information and History
Russia's Commander Islands are a remote archipelago in the southwestern Bering Sea, about 200 km east of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula and 300 km west of Attu, the westernmost of the United States' Aleutian Islands.
The Commander Islands archipelago consists of approximately 15 islands; Bering Island and Medniy Island are the two main islands. Two smaller islands, Toporkov and Ariy Kamen, lie off the northwest coast of Bering Island. Together with islets, sea stacks, and outcroppings, the total land area of the archipelago is some 2,000 km2.
Nikol'skoye Village, located on the northwest coast of Bering Island, is the only village on the archipelago and has a population of ca. 700 people, of which ca. 300 identify themselves as Aleut. The islands were uninhabited prior to their discovery during the expedition led by Captain Commander Vitus Bering in 1741.
In 1993, the Government of Russia designated the Commander Islands as a zapovednik (state nature reserve) to preserve the unique natural complexes of the Commander Archipelago and the genetic diversity of plants and animals, and to protect natural conditions for life and activities of Aleut people living on the Commanders. Zapovedniks have typically been created exclusively for conservation and science, and managed with an inward-looking emphasis. The Commander Islands zapovednik is unique in that it was originally planned to be consistent with the biosphere reserve management concept, which is intended to protect globally important biodiversity as well as to perpetuate the well-being of the local human population.
In 2002, the United Nations assigned Commander Islands Nature Reserve the status of biosphere reserve. The reserve is now named "Commander Island Nature and Biosphere Reserve" (CINBR).
The total area of the reserve is 3.65 million ha, including 0.19 million ha of land and 3.46 million ha of marine habitat (protecting a 30 mile [48 km] zone surrounding the islands).
The biological diversity of the Commanders is unique, and the adjacent marine waters are among the most productive in the North Pacific. The local flora and fauna have features of both America and Asia; the Asian influence is more pronounced.
The migration routes of many whale species pass by the islands' shores. Twenty-one species of cetaceans feed or winter in the coastal waters of the Commander Islands, including: Sperm whale; Dall's porpoise; orca; Baird's and Cuvier's beaked whales; minke whale; sei whale; fin whale; humpback whale; and northern right whale.
About 300,000 marine mammals can be found in the coastal zone of Bering and Medniy islands. The archipelago is home to the world's second largest concentration of northern fur seals (second only to Alaska's Pribilof Islands); an estimated 200,000 northern fur seals haul out at four island rookeries during the June-July breeding season. Healthy populations of sea otters and Steller's sea lions occupy the reserve year-round. Approximately 3,000 spotted and harbor seals inhabit the island's coastal areas and occupy an estimated 60 haulout areas.
There is only one terrestrial mammal—the Arctic fox—native to the islands. The Commander populations of Arctic fox have morphed into two sub-species, one on Bering Island and one on Medniy Island.
The unique character of the avifauna of the Commanders includes taxa of paleo- and neo-arctic origin. Twenty-five species that are listed in the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation occur on the islands, including short-tailed albatross, emperor goose, and peregrine falcon. There are 19 species of colonial nesting seabirds, totaling around one million individuals. With 200,000 pairs, the archipelago's northern fulmar colonies are some of the largest in the world. Other common seabird species are thick-billed and common murres, tufted puffins, and red-legged and black-legged kittiwakes.
The Commander Islands are one of only four breeding sites for the world population of red-legged kittiwake. Rock sandpipers and Mongolian plovers are common tundra-nesting shorebirds throughout the archipelago, with long-toed stints and red phalaropes favoring wetland nesting sites on the north side of Bering Island. Ice-free nearshore waters attract thousands of wintering waterfowl, along with gulls, cormorants, and alcids. The Commanders are an important site for wintering Steller's eiders, and the only place in Russia where emperor geese regularly overwinter.
Despite the archipelago's relatively recent geological origin, a high level of endemism characterizes the bird fauna of the Commander Islands. Among the 204 recorded bird species are endemic subspecies of rock ptarmigan, winter wren, gray-crowned rosyfinch, and rock sandpiper, and a single endemic species (now extinct), the flightless Steller's cormorant.