The principal islands are Saint Paul and Saint George. The former was named for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, on the day of which the island was discovered; the latter was probably named for the ship sailed by the islands' discoverer, Gavriil Pribilof. The Otter and Walrus islets are near St. Paul. The total land area of all the islands is 75.072 sq mi (194.44 km2). The islands are part of the Bering Sea unit of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge.
While oral traditions of the Aleut people maintain the islands were sparingly visited, "no ethnohistoric or archaeological evidence points to the use or occupation of the Pribilof Islands... by any native people before the Russian period in Alaska." The seasonal migrations of the Northern fur seal became known by the Russians in the 1780s. Swimming north through the Aleutian Islands, the seals returned in the autumn with newly born pups. The unknown northern breeding grounds became a focus of Russian trappers. An employee of the Lebedev-Lastochkin Company, Gavriil Pribylov, sailed in 1786 to discover the location, after disobeying orders to retrieve company property in the Kurile Islands. The rookeries Pribylov visited held upwards of four million seals, for which they became famous. The islands became site to the LLC's first artel in what later became Russian America.
With the creation of the Russian-American Company, a monopoly, Russian operations continued on the islands. Under the Alaska Purchase sovereignty was passed to the United States in 1867. From 1870 to 1890, the U.S. government leased them to the Alaska Commercial Company. From 1890 through 1910, the North American Commercial Company held the monopoly on seal-hunting there, but the industry shrank considerably owing to seal-hunting on the open sea.
The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911 was signed by Canada, Japan, Russia, and the United States to restrict hunting in the area. Under the Fur Seal Act of 1966, hunting of the seals was forbidden in the Pribilofs, with the exception of subsistence hunting by native Aleuts.
Ambrose Bierce suggested renaming the islands 'locus sigilli' ("Place of the seal") in his The Devil's Dictionary.
Naturalist and paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews visited the island in 1913 aboard the schooner Adventuress in her maiden voyage with John Borden and crew. His films of fur seals led to efforts to protect the animals. The buildings on St. George and St. Paul islands related to the hunting of the Northern Fur Seal make up the national historic district.
Residents are concentrated in the towns of St. Paul and St. George, each on the island of the same name. St. Paul has a population of 479 (2010 census), with its economy heavily dependent on the annual taking of the snow crab and on subsistence and commercial halibut harvests. Support services to commercial fleets plying the waters of the Bering Sea also contribute to the economy. The balance of economic activity on the island relates to working for the government. The U.S. Coast Guard maintains a base on St. Paul, but no longer maintains a LORAN-C master station, as the technology has been replaced by GPS navigation. The National Weather Service has a station on the island, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a presence. St. Paul and St. George each have small airports; air service is provided from the mainland.
St. George has a population of 102. The economy is similar to that of St Paul. Many of the residents of the islands are related.
The Pribilof Islands are a birdwatching attraction, home to many species that do not fly in North America beyond Alaska. More than 240 species have been identified, and an estimated two million seabirds nest there annually. St. Paul is particularly popular, having a high cliff wall, known as Ridge Wall, above the Bering Sea.