Forty Years On The Pacific/Seals in Behring Sea
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Seals in Behring Sea
IT was a great bargain day for Secretary Seward of the United States, when he completed the deal with Russia which turned over that vast expanse of Alaskan territory to Uncle Sam. For, with the wealth of gold and other natural resources that went in with the deal, there was, at that time, no consideration given to the sealing industry; a rich heritage for many years, although now sadly depleted.
Countless thousands of dollars have been reaped from the rookeries of Alaska, where the fur-seal made its home. Romantic are the stories that could be written of the early days of the whaling fleets, that made their ways north from Victoria, British Columbia, and strange and startling the experiences of the men in charge of the trim little schooners that fought their way through storm, wave, and bergs, to the habitat of that muchly prized swimmer of the Northern Seas, to provide the glad raiment for milady.
Twenty years ago this industry flourished with an utter abandon of thought of the time when it would be a thing of the past. The slaughter of countless thousands of seals, the deaths of countless thousands of little ones, and of the yet unborn, forced international action; and a special commission was named to inquire into the subject and make a report that would give promise, at least, of a continuance of this great and rich Northern industry. What was done is now a matter of history.
The most important rookeries of Alaska are on the Pribilof Islands, and, although seals range over the spaces of the Western Seas, it is not known where they come to land, excepting on these and other Northern islands. They feed over a radius of about two hundred miles, and the study forms an interesting chapter in a narrative of this wonderful country.
The male seal reaches full maturity at about seven years, and weighs from four to five hundred pounds. The female is much smaller, weighing about eighty pounds. During breeding time the females congregate in "harems," each male having from thirty to one hundred females in his charge. The young male, known as the "bachelor," is not permitted to come near the rookeries during the breeding season, being kept away by the watchful eyes of the "bull," who preserves his position as lord and master of the "harem," and must remain without food during the entire time of the breeding season. His services are required over a period of sixty days; and as fast as one "cow" leaves the rookery, her allotted three feet of space is taken up by another.
It was the slaughter of these fur-bearers that brought about public condemnation. Natives, as well as white hunters, raided the rookeries, and with clubs fairly waded about among their helpless victims, maiming and bruising as many as they killed. No notable changes in the habits of the fur seal have resulted from any action of man. It is not possible for man to drive away the fur seals from any of their haunts except by killing them all. Pelagic sealing, in the opinion of the International Commission, headed by Professor David Starr Jordan, was the sole cause of the continued decline in fur-seal herds. The chief cause of death of the females on the rookeries is caused from the wrangling of the "bulls," and in the struggle of the reserve of idle "bulls" to steal "cows" from the> "harems." It is authoritatively stated that in 1896 more than 10,000 "pups" were trampled to death on the Pribilof Islands by the rough work of the "bulls" in their struggle for possession.
Pelagic sealing is now, of course, a thing of the past. The big fleet which used to make its way north, lies idle in Victoria harbor, or at least a great part of it did until the demands of the war made desirable every bottom which could be put to use and had a spar left from which a sail might swing.
Owing to the fact that they do not swim at depth, the food of the fur seal is taken from the surface. Small fish and squid make up the bill of fare; and they remain in the water until their food is digested. The nursing fur seal rarely feeds any but its own "pups"; and, despite the tricks of the orphans to steal a bit of milk, they are ever on the alert. She has the greatest affection for her own offspring; but is positively savage in the way she treats any other. They are easily fatigued when on land, and often become overheated; their skins being underlaid with a thick mass of blubber almost to the tail. However, they have their own way of cooling off, even in these Arctic climates. This is done by lifting their hind flippers in the air and deliberately fanning themselves.
What the glories of the seal hunt were twenty-five years ago may be slightly understood when it is known that in 1896 there were sixty-eight Canadian ships and twenty-one American vessels all engaged in this trade in Alaskan, Japanese and Russian waters; Canadian ships taking in that year 56,380 skins, and American vessels taking 11,560 skins. The trim little schooner Casco, formerly owned by Robert Louis Stevenson, was one of the Canadian ships engaged in the sealing trade. This ship later was used by the Boy Sea Scouts as a training ship, near Vancouver, B. C. It was aboard the Casco that Stevenson wrote many of his stories. On it he sailed the broad Pacific in search of health. The Casco, while she was in commission, brought back 1,010 skins. The London market price at the time was about eight dollars per skin.
Fears expressed years ago that the seal was doomed to extinction have not been borne out; but it is true that their numbers have been so sadly depleted as to give some anxiety for the future. Doubtless during the early days of the pelagic sealing, for every seal taken there was another killed or fatally wounded, and never recovered. It is said that on one of the Russian islands, Tolstoi, the ground is covered with the bleached bones of "pups" for which there was no market value, the skin not reaching that maturity which makes its fur to be rized. Fashion's whims, too, have had much to do with the industry. The price of a sealskin coat that once could be bought for a few dollars now staggers the average man. In spite of this, there is a constant demand on the London market. There was never but one attempt to take a census of the seal herds of the North, and that was in 1874, when Mr. Henry W. Elliott, by careful observation, declared that the inhabitants of the Pribilofs numbered a total of 3,193,400 breeding seals and pups, or about 1,000,000 breeding females. The period of gestation is 355 days. One "pup" is born at a time. There is no record of the birth of twins. The male seal is capable of procreation at the age of three years, but he is not permitted by his seniors to take charge of a "harem" until at least seven years old. The "bulls" arrive at the breeding stations in early May, take up their positions and await the coming of the females. This event is accompanied by constant righting among the males. The females come on land but a short time before the delivery of their young, after which the "bulls" hold the "cows" in the "harem" until after impregnation, when they again seek the sea, returning at intervals to feed their "pups."
Recent developments in the fur product have resulted in advantages to the United States. In previous years all Alaskan seal-skins were salted and shipped to London for curing, dyeing and dressing, English furriers holding the secrets of this process. London, as a consequence, controlled the fur market, and buyers from all parts of the world attended the sales there. After the World War broke out, the Funston Fur Auction Company purchased the principal seal treating plants and transferred the same to St. Louis, America, permission being secured to take over from England fifteen experts to instruct Americans in the treatment of raw furs. The result has been to make St. Louis the leading fur center of the world. A new process has been discovered for dyeing seal-skins which makes them more beautiful and pliable.