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Alaska Ecosystems Program

Using Traditional Knowledge and Archived Documents to Aid Research and Conservation Goals for the Northern Fur Seal

northern fur seal harem

In preparation for the Fur Seal Arbitration between the United States and Great Britain in 1892, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered C. L. Hooper, Captain of the steamer Corwin, to visit all the Aleutian passes east of the Islands of Four Mountains to document which passes the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) herd migrated through to enter the North Pacific Ocean. The expedition was to obtain affidavits from Aleut hunters detailing their knowledge of the movements of the seal herd after departing the Pribilof Islands and before appearing off the coast of western North America. The dispute between the two countries was over jurisdictional rights of the United States to restrict Great Britain from harvesting seals in pelagic waters, and information pertaining to fur seal migratory patterns was needed by the United States to present its "Counter Case" to the Tribunal of Arbitration. C. L Hooper's report to the Tribunal of Arbitration summarized what he learned during his trip to the Aleutian passes and several Aleut island communities during fall 1892 and emphasized the traditional knowledge communicated to him by the 80 Aleut hunters he interviewed. The report described several elements of the fur seal winter migration including the timing of departure, distribution at sea of pups, juveniles, adult males, and females, and the effect of wind and currents on their migratory behavior.

In the 1940s and 1950s, government officials who managed the fur seal harvest and scientists on the Pribilof Islands began to suspect variability in weather patterns affected survivorship of fur seal pups and the timing of the 3-year-old males' arrival at the Pribilof Islands. In a memo, written in 1941, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service research scientists Banner and Wilke stated the importance of learning the effects of weather on the movement of seals and suggested comparing the arrival date of harvestable seals to weather and oceanographic data.

Today, the National Marine Mammal Laboratory's (NMML) Alaska Ecosystems Program and its collaborators have research goals that include quantifying several features of the northern fur seal migration described above. With the aid of new microtechnologies, oceanographic quality sensors, and access to remotely sensed satellite data for environmental parameters in the North Pacific Ocean, NMML researchers are now able to reconstruct some of the observations and theories that Aleut hunters, C. L. Hooper, and wildlife biologists intrinsically knew from their observations as far back as 1892 (and before).

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