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AFSC Historical Corner:  Northern Fur Seal Research & Management, 1900-39

Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.
Species Research
  - Salmon
  - Other Fish
  - Fur Seals 1,2,3,4
  - Whales / Whaling
  - Marine Mammals
  - Red King Crab
  - Invertebrates
Federal Hatcheries
Fisheries Management
Environmental and Ecosystem Monitoring
fur seal pup
Fur seal pup on Gorbatch Rookery, St. Paul Island.
Bureau of Fisheries photo, cropped, 1914.

The Department of Commerce and Labor was created by an act approved 14 February 1903. On 1 July 1903 the Alaskan Fur-Seal Service was transferred from the Treasury Department to the new department where it was placed under the immediate direction of the chief clerk, Frank H. Hitchcock. Also on 1 July 1903 the Bureau of Fisheries was created out of the old Fish Commission which had been an independent agency of the Government from its start in 1871. The fur seal service was not, however, immediately placed in the Bureau. David Starr Jordan urged in December 1905 that this be done. George M. Bowers, Commissioner, Bureau of Fisheries, created on 12 January 1909 a "Fur-Seal Board" of five employees.

Throughout U.S. ownership of the Pribilofs, sealing managers have tried with varying effort to take seals of selected kinds. They have concentrated on the 2-, 3-, and 4-yr males, and the fur market has developed on the basis of skins from animals of these ages. Until 1913, however, the managers had no way of knowing the true age of a seal. They killed for size, and a measure of their judgement was disclosed later when the salted skins were graded for size in London. By 1892, and probably earlier, records were being kept in London, not only of grades but also of weights of the salted skins.

From 1904 to 1923, though not in each year, it was the custom to mark a specific number of bachelor seals before, during, or following the killing season. The operation was referred to as "shearing," "clipping," or "branding," though it meant clipping, with sheepshears, a round patch of the pelage from the top of the head. The annual bull count was established as routine in 1904.

On 1 July 1908, Capt. A. W. Baber, of Seattle, took motion pictures at Gorbatch Rookery which he showed in a "biograph exhibition" at the "Eskimo village" concession of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909. These were undoubtedly the first motion pictures of fur seals.

In a letter dated 16 January 1906, David Starr Jordan wrote to the President urging that a naturalist be appointed to the Pribilofs. He reiterated that "the fur-seal question is now chiefly, almost wholly, biological". Official reports from the islands indicated that no adequate study was being made of hookworm, changes in harem areas, the bull-to-cow ratio, and other biological matters. Millard C. Marsh, whom we [Scheffer, et al.] may regard as the first "fur seal biologist," was assigned to the Pribilofs in 1906. His main duties as outlined in a letter dated 28 April 1906 were to "census" the seal population and to investigate pup mortality. During Marsh's first summer on the islands he found no hookworms, though he evidently looked at no more than a dozen pups. He sketched the harem outlines for most of the rookeries and photographed on Ardiguen and Kitovi. He recorded fur seal body temperatures. He assisted in the counting of harem bulls on both islands. The counting of pups was interrupted when pelagic sealers appeared offshore. In order not to frighten the rookery animals into firing range of the sealers, the Government forbade all visits to the rookeries.

Pelagic Sealing 

The first successful experiment in weaning silver pups was carried out in 1909-10 by boatswain Thurber on board the revenue cutter Bear. Two pups, "Bismark" and "Mamie," were captured on St. Paul Island on 8 and 9 October 1909. They were fed at first on evaporated cream mixed with bits of fish, later on fish alone. They were eventually delivered by boat and rail to the Bureau of Fisheries Aquarium in Washington, D.C., in January 1910. Here they died in 1918.

Japanese and Caucasians on Japanese schooners, continued recklessly to hunt seals in the coastal waters of the Pribilofs. It is difficult now to imagine the tension under which the administrators and scientists on the islands must have lived in the last years of pelagic sealing. In 1908 the watchmen on guard at Northeast Point reported on half a dozen occasions that they had observed the small boats from the schooners to form a line a mile or so in length and, in that formation, advance abreast on the rookery. When close to shore, the occupants of the boats would begin a fusillade with their shotguns, the noise of which would drive off a number of seals from the rookeries and hauling grounds. The boats would then withdraw a safe distance from shore and there pursue and seek to capture those seals which had just been driven off the land by them. In 1908 no attempt was count pups on any of the rookeries for the reason that during the latter part of July and early August hardly a day passed that there were not one or more Japanese sealers operating off the rookeries.

[An] important "act to protect the seal fisheries of Alaska, and for other purposes" was approved on 21 April 1910, effective 1 May 1910. It continued the ban on pelagic sealing by U.S. nationals and the ban on killing females and pups on land. It declared the Pribilofs a special reservation for government purposes. Most important, it did away with the leasing system and made the Secretary of Commerce and Labor directly responsible for the Pribilof Islands and the fur seal industry. When the lease of the North American Commercial Company expired on 1 May 1910, the Government took control of sealing.

Walter Louis Hahn

On 24 August 1910, Walter Louis Hahn, formerly head of the biology department at South Dakota State Normal School, arrived at St. Paul Island to be permanent naturalist. He was to "have charge of all matters pertaining to the investigation, study, and management of the fur-seal herd, the blue foxes, and all other life on the islands" and to "give advice to the agent in charge regarding the number of seals and foxes to be killed each season". His duties were to survey the possibility of introducing reindeer, sheep, poultry, muskrats, mussels, crawfish, mink, otter, water lilies, and other useful animals and plants; also to experiment in the artificial rearing of fur seal pup. Heath recommended that "a museum be installed on the islands, containing, so far as is practical, specimens of all the animals and plants. And equally desirable is a library, comprising all works that in any way are concerned with the biology of the country." After the death of Hahn in 1911, Millard C. Marsh, pathologist of the Bureau of Fisheries, was appointed chief naturalist of the Pribilofs.

Population Recovery

Between 1913 and 1922 the [U.S.] Government developed a new method for processing and selling Alaskan sealskins in the United States. The 1912 catch had been sold in London on 17 January 1913. The 1913 catch was sold in St. Louis by Funsten Brothers and Company on 16 December 1913, representing the first American sale. Processing began at St. Louis in December 1915. The first sale in the United States of processed (as against salted) sealskins was held in St. Louis on 20 December 1916. The Funsten firm went bankrupt in 1920, following a severe depression in the fur market. On 15 February 1921, the Department of Commerce cancelled its contract with Funsten and negotiated a new one for 10 years with the Fouke Fur Company.

On 7 July 1911 a treaty which was to endure for 30 years was signed by representatives of the United States, Great Britain (on behalf of Canada), Russia, and Japan. It became effective on 15 December 1911. It had no formal name but was referred to as "the convention...for the preservation and protection of the fur seals and sea otter which frequent the waters of the north Pacific Ocean. As the year 1912 opened, the fur seal herd was freed from a 30-yr drain upon its breeding stock, especially upon the female element of the stock. It became important therefore to know the exact status of the herd and a full count of the pups was undertaken and successfully accomplished by [George A. Clark, who] had helped with the partial counts of 1896-97 and 1909.

In 1912 he counted 70,035 pups on St. Paul and 11,949 on St. George, a total of 81,984. (When the herd finally recovered, about 1940, the annual pup recruitment had risen to about 530,000.) For 5 successive years, 1912-16, and in 1922, all pups on the Pribilofs were counted. After 1922, the task became too difficult; it was never repeated.

Pelagic sealing had brought death by starvation to thousands of orphan pups on the islands. Now, in the absence of pelagic sealing, Millard Marsh began in 1912 to study mortality factors at the beginning of the new regime.

Osgood, Preble, and Parker

The Secretary of Commerce on 26 May 1914 appointed a commission of three eminent zoologists to visit the seal islands...George H. Parker of Harvard University, Wilfred H. Osgood of the Field (Chicago) Museum of Natural History, and Edward A. Preble of the Bureau of Biological Survey. The three had been nominated by the National Academy of Sciences, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Department of Agriculture, respectively. The work assignment of Osgood, Preble, and Parker was staggering. It was to "census" the Pribilof herd by age and sex components, to evaluate past influences upon it, to evaluate current sealing methods, and to recommend future practices which would lead to restoration of the herd. Other assignments included study of the welfare of the native peoples, the taking of motion pictures for publicity use, and studies of foxes, reindeer, and birds. The more important scientific accomplishments [from their field work were]:

  1. Contour maps representing each of the 22 rookeries and showing the approximate locations of harems were printed.
  2. A method of computing the number of seals in certain age classes, and of computing total herd size, was established.
  3. Evidence on the effect of pelagic sealing was obtained.
  4. Measurements of 2-yr-olds were first established from marked animals.
  5. [They] realized that important zoological data – future rates of increase of the herd and survival rates of young seals to killable age – could be obtained from complete pup counts.
  6. The team stressed the value of permanently branding a number of 3-yr-old males each year in order to insure a future breeding stock.
  7. The team pointed out that body length of a seal, from nose to root of tail, on the killing field, is a better index of its age than is skin weight. They designed the first calipers for use in the field.
  8. At the conclusion of their report, the team noted that "no bibliography relating to the Pribilof fur seals has ever appeared". They met the need with a list of over 200 titles.

The management recommendations of Osgood, Preble, and Parker in 1914 were largely accepted by the Bureau of Fisheries. Under the careful leadership of Ward T. Bower, routine techniques for counting bulls and pups, for measuring rookery areas, for photographing the rookeries, and for estimating the age composition of the annual kill were gradually developed. These tasks fell to the island managers, administrative assistants, storekeepers, or schoolteachers. At the same time, many improvements in methods of harvesting seals and of processing their skins were made. Unfortunately, as we shall point out, no biologists or naturalists were on the scene, and scarcely any zoological research on fur seals was carried on during the 25-year period.

In 1921, two wooden towers with elevated approaches or "catwalks" were erected on the Reef to improve visibility for bull counting. Many other towers have been erected on the rookeries since. Before 1921, the annual bull count had been made from high points on land, from ladders, from portable tripods, and from boats. The bull count first became an annual event in 1904. In 1922 at least 95 percent of all pups on the Pribilofs were counted under the direction of Edward C. Johnston, storekeeper. A full count has not been made since.

[Other] scientific and technological advances from 1915 to 1939:

  • In 1915 a U.S. [sealskin] industry was born.
  • In 1917, Arnold C. Reynolds and G. Dallas Hanna measured the space occupied by breeding seals on the Pribilofs.
  • All of the Pribilof rookeries were photographed at the peak of the breeding season in mid-summer 1895 and in at least 5 other years: 1905, 1917, 1922, 1925, and 1948. The first aerial survey of the rookeries was made in 1938.
  • Experiments in the use of seal by-products were conducted in 1917 during a wartime economy. Bones, intestines, blubber oil, flipper gelatine, salted shoulders, and other products were examined. The first unit of a reduction plant was built on St. Paul Island in late 1918, to prepare meal and oil from seal carcasses.
  • In 1917 dogs were prohibited on the Pribilofs. Further to avoid disturbing the seals, sight-seeing trips to the rookeries and hauling grounds were first regulated in 1920.
  • The Fur Seal Treaty of 1911 was slated to be reviewed in 1926. Partly to stimulate public discussion of a new treaty, five concerned naturalists of the American Association for the Advancement of Science formed, on 4 August 1921, a "Committee on Conservation of Marine Life of the Pacific".
  • In 1923, the Bureau of Fisheries decided to insure an escapement of males for the breeding reserve by marking and sparing a prescribed number during the harvest. That year, 10,017 seals were marked by shearing or hot-iron branding, or both.
  • Nothing had been known of the food habits of fur seals during migration south of the Gulf of Alaska. In the 1930's, four studies were carried on by fishery agencies of the United States and Canada, designed to evaluate the importance of predation by seals upon salmon and other commercial fishes.
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