Popular Science Monthly/Volume 77/November 1910/The Much Misunderstood Fur Seals of Bering Sea

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1579459Popular Science Monthly Volume 77 November 1910 — The Much Misunderstood Fur Seals of Bering Sea1910George Archibald Clark




THE public press has recently engaged in a spirited discussion of the affairs of the fur seals of Bering Sea which is remarkable for the popular misapprehension it discloses of the real facts of this problem, which has been before the public as a national and international issue for a quarter of a century. The recent discussion was precipitated by certain criticisms, by the Camp Fire Club of New York, made against an order of the Secretary of Commerce and Labor for the killing of the annual quota of young male seals during the current season. The order of the secretary was not a new or unusual one. A similar order has been given each season for the forty years in which the herd of the Pribilof Islands has been in the control of the United States, and was in vogue for the half century or more of Russian control.

This order called for the killing of 8,000 of the superfluous young males to secure their skins. It is the way in which the government harvests the product of its fur seal herd. The order is exactly analogous to one which the owner of a herd of 100,000 cattle might give to his agents to drive up and slaughter for market 8,000 young steers. Other analogies might be found in the methods of handling sheep, poultry or any other of our domestic animals from which we derive food or raw material of value and utility.

The fur. seal is a polygamous animal, a fact which the Camp Fire Club seems to overlook. Actual enumeration shows that 29 out of every 30 males born are superfluous for breeding purposes. A reasonable proportion of these 29 may be killed for commercial uses without injury to the herd and their withdrawal will have no more effect on the life of the herd than the killing of a like number of steers would have on a herd of cattle.

Moreover, it is not merely feasible and safe to take these animals, but it is beneficial to the herd that they should be removed. To let these young males grow up to adult age would precipitate a condition of fighting and struggle on the rookeries which would be injurious in a high degree to the welfare of the herd. To illustrate by another analogy, the condition which their exemption from killing would produce on the fur-seal rookeries would be exactly like that which would exist on the cattle range if all the young male calves and colts were

A General Rookery View—Breeding Seals.

allowed to grow up as bulls and stallions to contest with one another the supremacy of the herd.

The adult male fur seal is five times the size of the adult female and forty times the size of the young pup of a week old. In the struggles of the bull to defend his harem from other bulls, the young are trampled under foot and the mothers torn to pieces. This condition was very conspicuous on the rookeries in 1896-7, when 5,000 haremless idle bulls fought throughout the season with the 5,000 active bulls in charge of harems. This unfortunate condition in 1896-7 was due to exactly what the Camp Fire Club would have repeated at the present time. In 1891-2-3 there was a modus vivendi, pending

A "Pod" of Pup Fur Seals.

the action of the Paris Tribunal of Arbitration, which restricted the killing on land to a few thousand seals for natives' food. The majority of the young males were allowed to escape and grow up as idle bulls, a source of injury and loss to the herd until eliminated by death in contests with one another or by old age. It is in the light of this experience and with a view to obviating its repetition that the order of the secretary for the killing of the superflous young males becomes not merely good business policy, but beneficial to the herd.

The criticism of the Camp Fire Club calls attention to the precarious condition of the herd, which is an admitted fact and one of grave concern.
An Adult Male Fur Seal or Harem Master.
Mother Fur Seal and Young.

The mistake is in the implication that the order of the department has anything to do with this condition. As a matter of fact the greatly depleted condition of the herd of fur seals is due to an entirely different cause fully demonstrated and easily understood.

The fur seal gets all its food in the open sea at great distances from land. It resorts to the land only to bring forth and nourish its young to self-dependence. It is resident for this purpose on certain islands in Bering Sea from May to November. The mother seal goes 150 to 200 miles from the rookery to find her food, leaving her young behind, returning to nurse it and again go away to feed. With the storms of winter all classes of animals leave the islands and make a long migration

A Young Bull Fur Seal.

down through the Pacific Ocean to the latitude of Southern California, returning slowly along the coast.

It had been the custom of the Indians of the northwest coast of America from the earliest times to go out in their canoes a day's journey to hunt with the spear stragglers from the migrating herd on its northward journey. It was a precarious business and the number of animals taken was unimportant. In 1879, however, sailing vessels began to be used to take the Indians and their canoes out to the main body of the herd and to enable them to follow its course. This new form of sealing was very successful. The fleet grew in numbers and the catch multiplied until it reached the total of 140,000 skins in a single season. The operations of the fleet gradually extended over the entire migration
Young Male Seals—Killable Seals—herded by themselves.

route of the seals and included their summer feeding grounds in Bering Sea.

The males being reduced in numbers by land killing, the females predominated in the herd as found at sea. On land the young males are forced to herd by themselves through fear of the adult males. They can be readily distinguished and handled without disturbance to the breeding herd. At sea the sexes can not be distinguished. On the spring migration the mother seal is heavy with young and hence less swift in her movements. On the summer feeding grounds she must feed regularly and heavily through necessity of nourishing her young. As a result the pelagic catch is made up chiefly of the breeding females. Investigations of the pelagic catches of 1895 and 1896 disclosed the fact that 65 to 85 per cent, of its skins were taken from gravid and nursing females. The young of these mother seals died unborn or of starvation on the rookeries. The writer counted 16,000 young fur seal pups which died of starvation on the rookeries of the Pribilof Islands in the fall of 1896 as a result of pelagic sealing for that season. In 1909 he found by actual count that 13.5 per cent, of the birth rate for that season were dead or dying of starvation in August of that year. From 1879 to the present time this hunting of gravid and nursing females has gone steadily on, with the consequence that the herd of fur seals belonging to the United States has been reduced from 2,500,000 animals to less than 150,000 animals.

No other result could be expected from this wasteful and indiscriminate slaughter. It is not necessary to look for other causes, this cause is more than sufficient. To return to our analogy, suppose the owner of a cattle range should allow the slaughter of 65 to 85 per cent, of his breeding cows with the consequent loss of their offspring. It would simply mean the ruin of the herd of cattle, and pelagic sealing has in like manner brought ruin on the fur-seal herd.

This cause of decline was established for the government in 1898 by a commission of scientific experts. It was pointed out that only by the establishment of an international game law for the high seas which should protect the female fur seal—in other words, the abolition of pelagic sealing—could the herd be preserved and restored. The property involved is a very important one. The fur-seal herd during the first twenty years of its ownership by the United States yielded to the government a revenue of $13,500,000, almost twice the sum paid for the Territory of Alaska. If the conditions of these twenty years held true for to-day—and they would remain true were it not for pelagic sealing—the herd would now be bringing to the government an annual income of $1,000,000.

In the period of fourteen years since the exact relation of pelagic sealing to the reduced condition of the herd was demonstrated to our government, this wasteful and inhuman form of hunting has gone on season by season without interruption. A total of 200,000 gravid

A Fur Seal Harem.

and nursing females have been taken from the breeding stock of the herd. The skins of these animals have been marketed by the pelagic sealers at an average price of $15 per skin, a total loss in cash to the government of $3,000,000, with an actual loss through breeding possibilities of ten times this amount, as the breeding life of the female fur seal is at least ten seasons.

There is abundant ground here for legitimate criticism of our governmental policy in dealing with this valuable industry. There is no occasion to invent grounds of criticism such as those urged against the Secretary of Commerce and Labor for a harmless detail of administration. The responsibility does not, however, rest entirely with the United States. The fur seal question is an international issue. The flags of Japan and Great Britain protect the destructive and suicidal industry of pelagic sealing—an industry which is also on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of the failure of the herd, for it preys on its own capital. Russia also owns an important fur seal herd which has suffered and is suffering in exactly the same way that the herd of the United States has suffered and is suffering. It is the business of these two nations—owners of fur seal herds—to effect an understanding with the two nations which stand sponsor for the pelagic industry to the end that the wasteful slaughter may cease.

Surely the abolition of pelagic sealing, which means the hunting of gravid and nursing female fur seals—exactly analogous to the hunting of the gravid doe or the brooding quail—is a cause which should appeal to and enlist the support of the sportsmen of the Camp Fire Club and all lovers of animals the world over. Every influence of criticism and assistance that can be brought to bear should be directed toward the four great nations—the United States, Great Britain, Russia and Japan—having responsibility for this matter, to the end that this valuable race of animals, the fur seals of Bering Sea, shall be saved to the world.