Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/March 1899/The Scientific Expert and the Bering Sea Controversy
|THE SCIENTIFIC EXPERT AND THE BERING SEA CONTROVERSY.|
IN the November number of the Popular Science Monthly for 1897, Dr. Thomas C. Mendenhall reviews at some length the workings of the Bering Sea Commission of 1892. Dr. Mendenhall was himself a member of this commission, and his account of its inside history is interesting and instructive as throwing light upon the after-work of the Paris Tribunal of Arbitration for which it was to prepare the natural-history data.
Dr. Mendenhall naturally finds little to commend in the work of his colleagues, the British experts, but he does not stop there, and proceeds to generalize in an uncomplimentary way regarding scientific experts as a class. For example, he lays down the following just and admirable rule for scientific investigation: “It should be commenced with no preconceived notions of how it is to come out, and judgment should wait upon facts,” and then continues to say: “Justice to the man of science obliges the admission that, take him in his laboratory or library, with no end in view except that of getting at the truth, and he generally lives fairly up to this high standard; but transform him by the magic of a handsome retainer, or any other incentive, into a scientific expert, and he is a horse of another color.”
It is not the purpose of this article to argue the cause of the man of science, or to say whether or not this arraignment is just. It is the intention merely to bring into contrast with the notable example of failure which Dr. Mendenhall cites, an equally notable example of success on the part of the scientific expert. If I mistake not, this simple comparison will be all the vindication the man of science needs.
To understand the full force of Dr. Mendenhall's article, it must be remembered that it appeared on the very eve of the meeting of a second Bering Sea Commission called to consider the selfsame issues which occupied the attention of the commission of 1892. The article therefore stands as a prediction of failure for the new commission. Nor does Dr. Mendenhall leave his meaning obscure in this regard. He says, “It is difficult to see what good will come from further discussions, investigations, or declarations”; and his conclusion is, “It will be impossible to know absolutely which group of scientific experts (American or British) was right in regard to pelagic sealing,” this last subject being the rock on which the commission of 1892 split.
It is not necessary here to go into the details of this first commission. These are given in Dr. Mendenhall's article. Two things only are essential to bring this meeting into contrast with the one of 1897. These are the instructions under which it was organized and its final report. Both are brief. The first is comprehended in the following statement, quoted from the Treaty of Arbitration of 1892: “Each Government shall appoint two commissioners to investigate conjointly with the commissioners of the other Government all facts having relation to seal life in Bering Sea, and the necessary measures for its protection and preservation.”
The commissioners duly visited the fur-seal islands in Bering Sea, made their investigations, and were called together at Washington to deliberate upon the results obtained, and to prepare a joint report for the guidance of the Tribunal of Arbitration then about to convene at Paris. With Dr. Mendenhall was associated, on behalf of the United States, Dr. C. Hart Merriam. Great Britain was represented by Sir George Baden-Powell and Dr. George M. Dawson. The commission began its labors on the 8th of February, and completed them on the 4th of March following. Its final report, shorn of verbiage, consists of the following colorless statement: “We find that since the Alaska purchase a marked diminution in the numbers of the seals on and habitually resorting to the Pribilof Islands has taken place; that it is cumulative in effect, and that it is the result of excessive killing by man.” One half of the work set for the commission—namely, measures for protection—was left wholly untouched.
In view of this meager and unsatisfactory result, it is perhaps not to be wondered at that Dr. Mendenhall should grow skeptical of the value of expert scientific evidence. But had he sought a cause of the failure of 1892 he might easily have found one more rational than the alleged “handsome retainer,” or other “incentive.”
It is manifestly true that the man of science can legitimately appear as an “expert” only when his evidence is desired on some line along which he has done work. An invertebrate morphologist is not an expert in electricity; nor a physicist in the habits of pinnipeds. One only of the four gentlemen, called upon in 1892 without their own consent to act as experts, had even a passing knowledge of the life history of marine mammals. Dr. Mendenhall was a physicist, Dr. Dawson a geologist, and Sir Baden-Powell something of a sportsman. Dr. Merriam alone, a mammalogist of the first rank, was a scientific expert in any proper sense.
Moreover, the investigations conducted by the two commissions were, from a scientific point of view, of the nature of a farce. Less than two weeks were spent upon the islands, and that at a date in the season least favorable of all for observations. This meant that the greater part of their information was got second-hand by the commissioners.
In marked contrast to the findings of the joint meeting is the individual report of the American commission, prepared largely by Dr. Merriam. This stands out as a notable contribution to the subject of which it treats. Though largely a compilation, so well was the work of sifting and weighing evidence done, that not a single statement of fact in it has proved fallacious, and the more exhaustive investigations of 1896 and 1897 corroborate its conclusions in every particular. This was the work of the true “scientific expert,” and he can ask no better vindication. The joint commission contained “experts” of another sort, and its report was necessarily different.
The second Bering Sea Commission came into existence in much the same way as the first. An agreement was reached in 1896 between the two nations whereby the entire fur-seal question should become the subject of a new investigation. This agreement was the outgrowth of dissatisfaction on the part of the United States with the workings of the regulations of the Paris award.
The new investigation was begun at once and extended through the seasons of 1896 and 1897, and again the experts were called together at Washington to agree, if possible, on a joint statement of fact. The scope of the investigation and the object of the joint meeting are succinctly stated in the following words quoted in the preamble of the commission's report: “To arrive, if possible, at correct conclusions respecting the numbers, conditions, and habits of the seals frequenting the Pribilof Islands at the present time as compared with the several seasons previous and subsequent to the Paris award.”
In the commission of 1897 the United States were represented by Dr. David S. Jordan and Hon. Charles S. Hamlin; Great Britain, by Prof. D'Arcy W. Thompson and Mr. James M. Macoun. It convened on the 10th of November and concluded its labors on the 17th, reaching a full and satisfactory agreement.
It will best serve our purpose to give the final report of the commission of 1897 in full. Two reasons make this appropriate: First, the substance of the sixteen concisely worded propositions of which it is made up can scarcely be stated in fewer words than the original. In fact, instead of condensing them, it will be necessary to amplify and explain many of the points made in order to be sure that they are clear to the lay reader. Second, the report has for some reason received practically no notice in the American press, and it is to be feared that the importance of the document has not been fully appreciated by the American public.
This proposition is in effect a restatement of the first clause of the agreement of 1892, but it is much more definitely put. The decline is not made to date vaguely “since the Alaska purchase” (1867), but “since the year 1884.” This latter date is significant for a number of things. Prior to it for a period of thirteen years there had been no difficulty in securing the normal quota of 100,000 skins annually. In other words, up to that time the herd had remained in a state of equilibrium, yielding a maximum product. Again, this date marks the advent of pelagic sealing in Bering Sea, and the beginning of that remarkable expansion of the industry which culminated ten years later in 1894. The decline of the herd is thus made synonymous with the rise of pelagic sealing.
The real significance of this proposition, however, lies in the fact that the decline is declared to have been continuous to the present time. In other words, it did not stop or even slacken with the season of 1894. In this season, it will be remembered, the regulations of the Paris award, avowedly for the “protection and preservation of the fur-seal herd,” went into effect. Translated into direct statement, this proposition is an admission that the regulations have failed of their object.
a. About 100,000 male seals of recognized killable age were obtained from the hauling grounds each year from 1871 to 1889. The table of statistics given in Appendix I shows, on the whole, a progressive increase in the number of hauling grounds driven and in the number of drives made, as well as a retardation of the date at which the quota was attained during a number of years prior to 1889.
b. In the year 1896, 28,964 killable seals were taken after continuing the driving till July 27th, and in 1897 19,189 after continuing the driving till August 11th. We have no reason to believe that during the period 1896 and 1897 a very much larger number of males of recognized killable age could have been taken on the hauling grounds.The reduction between the years 1896 and 1897 in the number of killable seals taken, while an indication of decrease in the breeding herd, can not be taken as an actual measure of such decrease. A number of other factors must he taken into consideration, and the real measure of decrease must be sought in more pertinent statistics, drawn from the breeding rookeries themselves.
We have already noted that in that portion of the period, 1871 to 1889, which falls prior to 1884, thirteen years in all, no difficulty was experienced in securing the full quota, and it may be added that this was completed not later than July 20th. A retardation of the date at which the quota can be filled is a direct indication of the degree of exhaustion of the hauling grounds. In marked contrast with these earlier years stand the conditions of 1896 and 1897, when greatly reduced quotas only were obtained, notwithstanding the unusual prolongation of the driving period.
The statement here made that the difference between the quotas of 1896 and 1897 is not an actual measure of decline in the breeding herd requires explanation. The quota of any year is dependent upon the birth rate of three years previous, killable seals being males of approximately three years of age. The difference noted, therefore, while not indicative of the actual decrease for the seasons 1896 and 1897, is a direct measure of such decrease for the seasons of 1893 and 1894, when the seals in question were born.
That the rate of decline as thus shown was greater in 1893-94 than in 1896-97 is explained by the fact that, whereas only 30,000 seals were taken at sea in 1893, 60,000 were taken in 1894; while in 1896 43,000 were taken as against only 25,000 in 1897. In other words, the pelagic catch of 1894 exceeded that of 1893 by one hundred per cent, while that of 1897 fell seventy-two per cent below that of 1896. It is not, therefore, strange that the quota of 1897 should show a reduction of thirty per cent as against one of twelve per cent in the breeding herd for the same year.
This proposition needs little comment. It is a simple deduction from the conditions of the preceding paragraph. The minimum estimate of former conditions is the lowest possible figure that could be in any way defended. The larger figure is apparently more nearly correct. The quota of 1898, of which we now have the record also, was about 18,000. It is not so stated in this paragraph, but the inference is inevitable that what is thus given as the decline of the “yield of the hauling grounds” is equally the decline of the breeding herd. A breeding herd which yielded without difficulty annually 100,000 killable animals (superfluous males of three years of age) must be reduced to something like one fifth its former size when it is able only with extreme difficulty to yield a quota of 20,000 such animals.
The maximum and minimum figures here represent a division of opinion. The larger figure of two thirds would even seem to be a conservative estimate. The birth rate of 1897, as we know from close estimate, was approximately 130,000; it must have been greater in 1894, approaching 200,000. From this larger birth rate only about 20,000 males survived (the quota of 1897). There was doubtless a like number of females, the sexes being equal at birth and subject to like causes of natural loss. This gives a total of 40,000 in all, out of a birth rate of 200,000, which survived to the age of three years. This is one fifth, and it is evident that the mortality exceeds rather than falls below the maximum of two thirds.
a. Ravages of the parasitic worm Uncinaria; most destructive on sandy breeding areas and during the period from July 15th to August 20th.
b. Trampling by fighting bulls or by moving bulls and cows, a source of loss greatest among young pups.
c. Starvation of pups strayed or separated from their mothers when very young, or whose mothers have died from natural causes.
d. Ravages of the great killer (Orca), known to be fatal to many of the young, and perhaps also to older seals.At a later period drowning in the storms of winter is believed, but not certainly known, to be a cause of death among the older pups.
The causes of death here enumerated are natural and inherent in the conditions under which the herd exists. That some of them were not known or fully understood until the investigations of 1896 and 1897 does not make them new or recent in their action. They have been constant factors, acting with greater intensity in the past when the herd was larger and more crowded upon its breeding grounds. Photographs taken in 1891 and 1892 show that the parasitic worm was then doing its deadly work, and more extensively in proportion as the herd was larger. For 1,495 pups dead from this cause counted by us on Tolstoi sand flat in 1896, 4,000 were counted on the same ground by the British commissioner of 1892. Moreover, the bones of innumerable pups on ground already abandoned in that year by the declining herd attest the existence of this cause of death prior to that time. We have no reason to suppose that it has not always preyed upon the herd. Death by trampling must at present be at a minimum on account of the scattered condition of the rookeries. The storms of winter and pelagic enemies must, of course, take toll in proportion to the number of animals.
But the significant fact shown by this proposition is that the gain of the herd must be small at best under such a natural death rate. We may suppose these natural losses to have been the checks which in a state of nature prevented the indefinite increase of the herd, When, therefore, to this total loss of from two thirds to four fifths of the entire birth rate before breeding age is attained, we add the tremendous artificial loss through the destruction of gravid and nursing females resulting from pelagic sealing, it is not to be wondered at that the equilibrium was broken and the herd sent on a rapid decline.
These figures are based upon counts of all the breeding families on both islands for each season. On certain rookeries the live and dead pups were counted. In this way an average size of family was obtained which was used to complete the census where pups could not be counted.
The important element in these special counts, undertaken with a view to determining the relative condition of the breeding herd for the two seasons, is the count of pups. All other classes of rookery population fluctuate from day to day, but the pups remain constantly on shore and near to the place of birth for the first six weeks of their lives, and it is merely a matter of patience and skill in counting them. Such a count on any rookery is an absolute record of the number of breeding females which has visited it for the season in question.
The minimum figure of nine per cent adopted by Professor Thompson is based upon a recount of a single rookery made by himself under conditions less favorable for accuracy than in the case of the official counts, which give the larger figure of twelve per cent, and which were made jointly by representatives of both commissions.
This is a rather extreme statement of the uncertainty which may be assumed to attach to these figures. The problem is not an easy one at best and its factors are complex. This should always be borne in mind, but not to the extent of doubting the value of the figures. The areas counted were large enough to be fairly typical. The counts were carefully done, and are accurate enough for all practical purposes. The probable error for the 15,000 more or less pups counted would not exceed 500. But as the counting was done in exactly the same manner and by the same persons for the two seasons, such errors as may exist are common to both counts and the relative conditions are unaltered. The figure of twelve per cent, moreover, must be taken as in itself a minimum, since it is the result of a number of individual counts varying in accuracy; and all in a sense underestimates, inasmuch as more animals are always overlooked among the rocks than are counted twice.
But the exact percentage of decrease is immaterial. That it has been a “notable” decrease is sufficient, and this is unquestioned. It may be noted in passing that this unequivocal decrease occurs in two seasons during which there was perfect enforcement of the regulations of the Paris award.
It was agreed by the commission of 1892 that “excessive killing by man” was the cause of the decline of the herd. As to the “man” in question the two sets of commissioners differed diametrically. The Americans placed the responsibility with the pelagic sealer; the British, with the lessees through their methods of sealing on land.
To any one who is at all familiar with the conspicuous part which the theories of close killing, and especially overdriving, played in the British contention before the Paris Tribunal of Arbitration, this full and frank vindication comes as a refreshing surprise. That it should be agreed to by British scientific experts ought to revive even Dr. Mendenhall's faith. It is true that the statement is carefully limited to the seasons under observation, but neither the principle nor the methods of land killing have been altered within the past half century except in so far as they have been improved. It was an absurd and foolish theory which ascribed to the treatment of the non-breeding and superfluous male life of a herd of polygamous animals responsibility for the decline of its breeding stock, but it served a purpose useful to Canadian interests before the Paris tribunal. It is now forever eliminated from the fur-seal question.
This statement is true, though wholly irrelevant to the question of the efficiency of the regulations themselves. Moreover, it stands as an implied impeachment of the active and efficient patrol fleet constantly maintained by the United States and Great Britain for the enforcement of the regulations governing the pelagic industry. For example, there were in 1896 five American and three British vessels engaged in active patrol of the waters of Bering Sea. One would think it a foregone conclusion that the pelagic industry should be law-abiding, whether of its own volition or not. In addition to all this, however, the regulations are as admirably suited to the needs of the pelagic sealer as if he had himself prepared them. There is, therefore, no reasonable incentive to violate them. Viewed in this light, this statement seems ludicrous, but it has a justification not evident at first sight.
The British experts demanded this statement as a balm for the wounded feelings of the pelagic sealer, and, such being the fact, the American commissioners assumed that it could do no harm to place it on record that he has conformed to the requirements of the law. But from the American point of view this paragraph has a wider and deeper meaning. We have seen in the opening paragraph that the decline in the herd has been continuous and uninterrupted during the period of the Paris regulations. It is admitted in paragraph 8 that the decrease for this same period has been a “notable” one. The rate is specified in paragraph 7 as from “nine to twelve per cent” during two years when the regulations were rigidly enforced. It only requires the climax of paragraph 10, asserting the perfect observance of the regulations, to complete their condemnation.
There are two ways and two alone whereby killing by man affects the fur-seal herd—namely, killing on land and killing at sea. Land killing has been vindicated in paragraph 9. We have here the necessary condemnation of pelagic killing expressed in equally full and frank terms. Land killing takes only males and leaves an adequate supply of bulls for breeding purposes; pelagic killing takes males and females alike, the latter sex constituting 62 to 84 out of every 100 killed.
It is not a vital matter that the female sex should be found to predominate in the pelagic catch, except in so far as it proves the falsity of the returns made so persistently by the Canadian sealing captain that the sexes are taken in virtually equal proportion at sea. The essential thing is that females are killed at all. That three fourths of all the animals taken at sea (during one season 140,000 animals were so taken) are of this sex only emphasizes the destructive nature of this industry.
This statement is put in the mildest possible form out of consideration for the old-time British contentions that the breeding females did not leave the islands while their young were dependent upon them, and that those taken at sea were “barren.” The investigations of 1896 and 1897 proved conclusively that every female of two years old and over taken at sea was pregnant, and that those over two years of age when taken in Bering Sea were in addition nursing, having dependent pups on the islands. The manner of statement seems to imply an equality in importance between “young” seals and “adults.” As females are never killed on land, they are naturally of all ages when found at sea, and the young animals (yearlings and two-year-olds) are necessarily vastly in the minority.
This paragraph is really supplementary to 9 and 11. Neither the methods nor yet the principle of land killing are at fault. The animal being polygamous, a part of its male life can be removed with impunity. On the other hand, the killing of females leads to disastrous results.
The concluding sentence is a concession to diplomacy. It is true that a certain number of females may be killed without producing actual diminution. If pelagic sealing were stopped to-day the herd would naturally begin to increase. The measure of its increase would be the difference between the natural loss of adult breeders through old age and incidents of the sea, on the one hand, and the yearly accession of young breeders to bear their first pups, on the other. We can closely estimate the latter factor. It was equal, for example, to the quota of 20,000 in 1897, or sixteen and two thirds per cent of the birth rate. The quota was composed of males of approximately three years, and we may assume that a like number of three-year-old females entered the rookeries for the first time in the same season. We have then a gross gain to the breeding herd of sixteen and two thirds per cent.
We have no means of exact estimate for the loss of adult females because we do not know the period of life in the female. If, however, we estimate it at thirteen years, which seems to be a conservative figure, the animal would have ten years of breeding life. Then, from old age alone, ten per cent of the adult breeding females must die annually. This leaves a net gain of six and two thirds per cent with accidental factors unaccounted for. The killing of females which does not produce actual diminution must come well within this margin of six and two thirds per cent. It only remains to be stated that the pelagic catch of 1897, which was the smallest on record since 1884, exceeded fourteen per cent.
This paragraph corrects possible erroneous implications which might be drawn from the truism in the preceding paragraph. A certain number of females may be taken, etc., but so many in excess of the safety limit have been taken that the herd has been reduced “in the degree related above”—that is, for 1896-97, nine to twelve per cent, and for 1884-'97, fifty to eighty per cent.
Dr. Mendenhall said: “It will be impossible to know absolutely which group of scientific experts was right (in 1892) in regard to pelagic sealing.” The admission made in this paragraph, taken together with other admissions made in paragraphs 11 and 12, effectually disproves this prediction. It ought to be a source of gratification to Dr. Mendenhall and to his colleague, Dr. Merriam, to find it thus clearly proved that they were right and their British associates wrong.
The final clause is here again a diplomatic concession to take the sting out of the real admission. The rapid fall in the pelagic catch as compared with the more even decline of the breeding herd is a natural phenomenon. Pelagic sealing not only destroys the herd, but it is necessarily self-destructive because it preys upon its own capital. The more successful it is the sooner it must cease. With the decline of the herd it is itself declining, and the rapidity of its fall proves the nearness of the end. For the years since 1894 the pelagic catch has been 61,000, 56,000, 43,000, and 25,000 respectively. It is a significant fact that in four years, under regulations which permit the pelagic sealer to take all he can get, the product of his industry has fallen to less than one half.
The two statements in this paragraph are not related. The first is a part of the preceding paragraph and is self-evident. Should the pelagic catch continue to decrease, as it must, it will eventually come within the margin of six and two thirds per cent. It has yet to fall far before this end is reached. Then will come that much-mooted “equilibrium,” when the herd will be too insignificant to be worthy of attack—the equilibrium of ruin. There is no comfort in this prospect, either for the pelagic sealer or for the owner of the herd, and it takes no note of the injury which has been accomplished in the past, much less of possible restoration in the future. The equilibrium here suggested is purely a figure of speech, another concession to diplomacy.
The final statement of this paragraph is more important. The starvation of pups as a result of the killing of mothers at sea has been a fact strenuously denied from the first by the British side of the fur-seal controversy. After the actual counting of 16,000 of these starved pups in 1896, this position could no longer be maintained. At the same time a specific admission of the fact of starvation and of the destruction of unborn pups was too difficult a matter for the British experts to face. These facts are left to be inferred from the “reductions in surviving pups” here noted and from the admission that “nursing and pregnant females” are taken in the pelagic catch. Stated directly, it is here admitted that on account of “the larger pelagic catch of 1894 and 1895,” numbers of pups starved to death on the rookeries or died unborn with their mothers which in the course of Nature should have reached the killable and breeding age.
The statements of this concluding paragraph must be taken in close connection, and the “ifs” must be carefully noted if they are not to prove very misleading. The opening sentence refers to the biologic extinction of the herd as contrasted with its commercial ruin. The former is as yet far off, the latter is a matter of history, as is admitted in the concluding statement—“an inconsiderable return.” This means simply that the herd has ceased to be a commercial factor, and henceforth under present conditions sealing, whether on land or at sea, must be conducted at a loss.
This has an important bearing upon the suggested impossibility of bringing about the extinction of the species. It all depends upon whether present conditions are maintained. The breeding islands and the sixty-mile protected zone must be guarded. It cost the United States $175,000 for patrol in 1896. England's expense was less, but still considerable. It is beyond reason that this expensive protection should be continued at a loss or without hope of ultimate restoration of the herd. Remove the protection for a single season and the herd would be practically exterminated. A scattered remnant would doubtless escape to maintain a melancholy equilibrium, or perhaps to recuperate and again attract the cupidity of some adventurous sealing captain, but the herd as such would be at an end.
Stated without reference to diplomatic necessities, this concluding paragraph admits two important things: first, that the herd of fur seals resorting to the Pribilof Islands is commercially ruined; second, that its extinction as a species only awaits the abandonment of certain arduous and costly measures of protection now maintained solely in the hope of more adequate protection and the ultimate restoration of the herd.
Such was the work of the Conference of Fur-Seal Experts of 1897. The handwriting of diplomacy is mingled with that of science in its findings, but the resulting obscurity affects only minor matters. The important issues of the vexatious Bering Sea controversy are squarely met and finally settled. It is needless to say that there no longer exists a fur-seal question. It is merely a question of how to get rid of the destructive agency of pelagic sealing. This is a matter for diplomacy to adjust. Any odium which may have attached to the “man of science” as a result of the failure of the meeting of 1892 is effectually wiped out, and if the lesson is read aright by the nations, henceforth the scientific expert must be counted an essential factor in the settlement of governmental disputes.
- See footnote on next page. This table of statistics need not be quoted here in full. The following section, embracing the ten years prior to 1889 and including 1884, will suffice:
1879 16 71 36 110,411 8,557 1880 17 78 38 105,718 8,418 1881 20 99 34 105,063 10,382 1882 20 86 36 99,812 15,551 1883 19 81 39 79,509 16,557 1884 21 101 42 105,434 16,971 1885 27 106 63 105,024 23,040 1886 26 117 74 104,521 28,494 1887 24 101 66 105,760 30,628 1888 27 102 73 103,304 26,189 1889 31 110 74 102,617 29,858