Commander Islands

Year of compilation: 2004

Site description
The Commanders lie in the southwestern Bering Sea 108 miles (173 km) east of the Kamchatka Peninsula (55°00' N; 166°30' E). They were named for Captain Komandor Vitus Bering who was shipwrecked and died on Bering Island in the winter of 1741. The Aleut village of Nikol'skoye and a zapovednik field station are located on Bering Island.

Key biodiversity
Among the 202 recorded bird species are endemic rock ptarmigan, rock sandpiper, ancient murrelet, winter wren and gray-crowned rosy finch. The Red Data Book of the Russian Federation lists 25 species that include Steller’s sea eagle, gyrfalcon, peregrine falcon, emperor goose, Aleutian tern and rock sandpiper. There are 19 species of colonial nesting seabirds, totaling an estimated 450,000 individuals. The most common of these are northern fulmars, murres, tufted puffins and kittiwakes. With 200,000 pairs, the northern fulmar colonies are some of the largest in the world. The Commanders are only one of five sites in the region where red-legged kittiwakes breed. Rock sandpipers and Mongolian plovers are common tundra-nesting shorebirds throughout the archipelago, with long-toed stints and red phalaropes favoring wetlands on the north side of Bering Island, fee-free offshore waters attract thousands of wintering waterfowl along with gulls, cormorants and alcids. This is the only place in Russia where emperor geese regularly winter. Gvrfalcons are also winter residents, probably because of the presence of ptarmigan, waterfowl and auklets.

Other significant wildlife: Several hundred thousand northern fur seals breed on Bering and Medniy islands, with Steller sea lions, ringed seals and sea otters inhabiting nearshore waters. Stejneger’s beaked whales, orcas and little piked whales are known to occur. An endemic race of Arctic fox is a common terrestrial predator on Medniy Island. Free-ranging reindeer occur on Bering Island. The once abundant Steller’s sea cow and spectacled cormorant were driven to extinction in the 18th century because of their vulnerability to hungry explorers and fur hunters.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
Introduced rats, mink, red voles and reindeer prey on ground-nesting birds. There is reported local overharvest of seabirds and waterfowl due to poaching and spring hunting. High-seas Japanese drift-net fisheries in waters adjacent to the reserve result in substantial mortality of seabirds. Pollution from ships is of some concern.

Conservation responses/actions for key biodiversity
The reserve’s marine zone is in need of greater protection. This should include seasonal sanctuary status to coastal waters off the northern coast of Bering Island, which attract large aggregations of wintering waterfowl. Russian biologists recommend that spring hunting of waterfowl be prohibited because of the danger of overharvest. The damaging Japanese drift-net fishery should be prohibited. Reserve personnel are in critical need of greater funding and material support.

Protected areas
Most of the two major islands (Bering and Medniy), two smaller islands (Toporkov and Ariy Kamen) and numerous smaller islets are mostly protected within a 30-mile-wide (48 km) marine zone as a federal nature reserve. The zapovednik has been designated by United Nations Environmental Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an International Biosphere Reserve because of its global importance.

Habitat and land use
Marine waters comprise 95 percent of zapovednik habitats. The islands themselves are dominated by mountainous tundra and brushy tundra plains crossed by short shallow rivers and streams. There are also extensive sea cliffs. Prolific eelgrass beds and kelp forests are found in the more sheltered nearshore waters. Island flora is chiefly of Asiatic origin, as compared to that of the nearest Aleutian Island of Attu, which is of North American origin.

The map polygon is provided courtesy of the Spatial Database on Important Bird Areas of Russia 2014 (© Russian Bird Conservation Union, © Transparent World).

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Commander Islands. Downloaded from on 18/08/2022.