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AFSC Historical Corner:  Northern Fur Seal Research & Management, 1800s

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Bull fur seal at Povolina Rookery on St. Paul Island.
Victor B. Scheffer, photographer. Date unknown.
 
 
"The principal breeding grounds of the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) occur on the Pribilof Islands in the eastern Bering Sea. These islands were discovered in 1786 by the crew of the St. George, a Russian ship under the command of Gerasim Gavrilovich Pribilof.

Breeding colonies occur in various other locations in the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea; among the newest is a rapidly growing rookery on Bogoslof Island (first colonized about 1980) just north of the Aleutian island chain.

Since that time, especially in this century, the northern fur seal (sometimes called the Alaska fur seal) has been the subject of both intensive and extensive biological studies, more so than most other wild living large mammals. At the same time, these animals have helped promote a growing awareness of marine mammal issues by the general public. Fur seals have been the focus of wildlife conservation through public concern, as an economic resource, and as an indicator of the health of the ecosystems in which it occurs."

(* Scott, 2006, under "Additional reading")
 

For more historical info check out The Pribilof Islands page in the Facilities & Field Stations section
 

To present a chronological medley of topics, the following text on these seal pages was taken from select sections of:
  Scheffer, V. B., C. H. Fiscus, and E. I. Todd. 1984. History of Scientific Study and Management of the Alaska Fur
  Seal, Callorhinus ursinus, 1786-1964. U.S. Dep. Commer., NOAA Tech. Rep. NMFS SSRF-780, 70 p. (.pdf, 48.1 MB)

 

Introduction

In the fur seal industry during its first century of U.S. ownership, the gap between management and research, or between business (i.e., the narrow view of the fur seal as an item of commerce) and biology, has slowly been closing. It seems clear now [in 1984] that, in order to manage effectively a resource of 1.5 million wild mammals, constant exploratory research must be carried on by zoologists working within the federal management organization itself. Yet, from 1868 to 1939 the seal herd was studied intermittently, and mainly by zoologists borrowed or hired from nongovernmental research institutions.

We [Scheffer, et al.) note that for 45 years the Pribilof managers had no good way of estimating the age of a seal, yet a simple marking experiment in 1912 finally provided them with a method for so doing. For 80 yr they were saying that the number of births equals the number of adult females, yet a bold experiment in killing and dissecting females ('the sacred cows' of the industry) revealed that the pregnancy rate is not 100% but nearer 60%. These examples indicate the importance of scientific study. The reader will doubtless agree, as he [or she] reads the following history, that $1,000 worth of research would, on occasion, have saved $10,000 worth of time on the part of managers, legislators, and diplomats.
 

The Russian Period, 1786-1867

Historical Summary of Sealing in the Russian Period
1786-1805 Wasteful overkilling;
the herd undoubtedly declining.
1806-1807 The first closed season.
1808 Killing resumed with slight control.
1822-1827 Partial closed season;
bulls and pups now spared;
introduction of a kill quota and breeding reserve.
1835-1839 Period of low annual kills, fewer than 7,000;
herd size also probably low.
1847 Females now spared.
1850-1852 Period of low annual kills, fewer than 7,000;
herd size also probably low.
1856-1867 Consistently moderate kills;
probably fewer than necessary

The first European to see an Alaskan fur seal was Georg Wilhelm Steller, on the voyage of discovery of Alaska. At dusk on 10 August 1741, south of Kodiak Island, he watched a "sea-ape" playing about the ship. He did not then or later recognize it as a seal. In the following summer, while shipwrecked on Bering Island, he saw fur seals returning to land to breed.

The species became known to science through the posthumous publication of his "De Bestiis Marinis", containing a full description of seals which he saw on Bering Island. The species was given a formal name, Phoca ursina, by Linnaeus in 1758. After Steller's 1751 description, little information on Callorhinus ursinus was published for a century.

The Pribilof Islands, sole breeding grounds of the Alaskan fur seals, were discovered by the crew of the Russian ship St. George under command of Gerasim Gavrilovich Pribilof.


Change of Ownership

Alaska was transferred to the United States in 1867 after the Russians had taken the annual seal harvest. In 1868, at least four private companies set up sealing camps on the Pribilofs and recklessly took several hundred thousand seals. Original records for the events of 1868 are practically nonexistent and subsequent statements are often exaggerations or apocryphal. Certainly the combinations of San Francisco business men that sent ships to seek out the trading potentialities wanted no publicity. There was no government either on the mainland or the islands.

While the slaughter was under way, Congress enacted on 27 July 1868 a stop-gap measure of protection. It forbade the killing of seals within the Territory of Alaska and obligated the Secretary of the Treasury "to prevent the killing of any fur seal....until it shall be otherwise provided by law". In 1869, the sealskin harvest was taken by two private firms under Treasury Department regulation. The Secretary also permitted the Aleuts to "kill such small numbers [of seals] as may be absolutely necessary for their sustenance and clothing". Congress, by Act of 1 July 1870 decided to lease the privilege of sealing on the Pribilof Islands to a monopoly operator.

An early attempt to salvage fur seal carcasses was made in 1871-72. About 8,000 gallons (30,000 1b) of seal oil were rendered, but the costs of making it and shipping it to San Francisco were greater than the price it brought.

By 1872 the Government had recognized the need for information on the fur seal herd, particularly for information on its size. Henry Wood Elliott was therefore sent to the islands. As surveyor, naturalist, author, lecturer, artist, and lobbyist he was the first man to give wide publicity to the habits, environment, and exploitation of the Pribilof seals. On his first assignment he was astonished to find no written record of the location or size of any rookery or an estimate of the number of seals thereupon. Elliott was present in at least six summers on the Pribilofs; 1872-74, 1876, 1890, and 1913.

In 1874, Lieut. Washburn Maynard, U.S. Navy, was sent to the Pribilofs to inspect the operations of the Alaska Commercial Company and to obtain general information on the fur seal herd. In July, he and Elliott mapped the rookeries and hauling grounds of both islands, using in part the rookery maps made by Elliott in 1872-73.

One of the first studies of the pelagic life of the fur seal was carried out by James G. Swan, a long-time resident of the Olympic coast of Washington. He arrived at Neah Bay on 27 March 1883 to study...the habits of the fur seals of Cape Flattery, in order to ascertain in what respect, if any, they differ from the fur seals of the Pribiloff Islands.


The Modus Vivendi of 1891-93

By 1891 the disastrous results of pelagic sealing had become so evident that the governments of the United States and Great Britain agreed upon a modus vivendi [temporary arrangement] of June 15, 1981. It closed the eastern part of Bering Sea to pelagic sealing...and limited the killings on the islands to 7,500 annually-the number required by the Natives for food. The modus vivendi was extended to cover the seasons of 1892 and 1893. Its essential provisions were: 1) The appointment of a commission to make investigations concerning the habits of the fur seal, pelagic sealing, and the management of the herd on the islands, and 2) the reference of all matters in dispute to a tribunal of arbitration.

The tribunal met in Paris on 23 February 1893 and reached a decision on 15 August 1893. It had been asked, essentially, to judge whether pelagic sealing or land sealing was the cause of the decline of the herd. In a conservative Old World milieu, it decided against most of the claims of the United States and it established certain regulations which would allow pelagic sealing to continue. The regulations were applicable only to citizens of the United States and Great Britain. Meanwhile, Japanese nationals, not being bound by the Paris regulations, began to hunt seals more intensively, even within 3 mi (5 km) of the islands. When, in 1894, the Paris regulations went into effect and supplanted the terms of the modus vivendi, the newer ones were seen to be useless. The pelagic take in Alaskan waters doubled in 1894 over that of the previous year. American feeling against pelagic sealing ran high.

The Paris regulations of 1893 were ineffective. The reported pelagic kill for 1894 reached an all-time high of 61,838 seals while the kill on land was only 15,033. The United States, therefore, requested Great Britain to consider the revision of the regulations. This request was declined, and in 1896 this country accepted the proposal of Great Britain that the two countries institute independent scientific investigations of the entire matter. The second joint commission visited the Pribilofs in the summers of 1896 and 1897. Its members were, for the United States: David Starr Jordan, Jefferson F. Moser, Leonhard Stejneger, Frederic A. Lucas, Charles Haskins Townsend, George Archibald Clark, and Joseph Murray. Those representing Great Britain were D' Arcy W. Thompson, Gerald E. H. Barrett-Hamilton, James M. Macoun, and Andrew Halkett.

The scope, the personnel, and the itinerary of the investigation of 1896-97 were summarized by Jordan and Clark. Among the results were the following important contributions to fur seal biology:

  1. The best "census" of seals up to then was prepared in 1897, and a preliminary census for 1896 was refined. The estimates were based on complete counts of harem bulls and partial counts of harem females and pups. The total estimate of Pribilof seals "present at one time or another, season of 1897" was 402,850.
     
  2. A critical review of existing rookery maps was undertaken by Moser during 10 days in July 1896.
     
  3. A detailed record of all seals killed for all purposes, by rookery and by day, from 1870 to 1897, was compiled by Murray. The total kill for the 28 yr was 1,977,337; the mean annual kill was 70,619.
     
  4. Anatomical studies of the fur seal were carried out by specialists attached to, or cooperating with, the Jordan Commission.
     
  5. The studies by Lucas on breeding behavior and physiology of the seal were especially important. Dissections by [Charles Haskins] Townsend in 1892 aboard pelagic sealing vessels had brought to light information on fundamental female anatomy. Later studies at sea, combined with Lucas' work on land in 1896 and 1897, brought evidence on the estrus, the fact of annual rather than biennial breeding, and the scarcity of barren individuals.
     
  6. The causes of mortality among seals were described and their effects were evaluated. The hookworm Uncinaria sp. was discovered. Dead pups were counted on all rookeries for the first time in 1896. The seal louse Antarctophthirus callorhini was described by [Herbert] Osborn. In 1897, upward of 12,000 carcasses of worm-infested pups were collected on Tolstoi and Zapadni and burned. In the same year, large boulders were placed in rows on the sand flats at Zapadni for pups to climb on. A theory was then held that hookworm infestation is correlated with sandy "death traps."
     
  7. Lucas tabulated the food items found in stomachs of 409 seals taken in Alaskan waters. He also described the contents of pup and bachelor stomachs examined on land. Townsend had been the first naturalist to obtain evidence of food habits when, on 2 August 1892, on the deck of the Corwin, he opened the stomachs of 33 seals.
     
  8. The methods and results of pelagic sealing were summed up by Townsend, at a time when about 100,000 seals were being killed annually at sea. Data on the distribution and migration of seals, obtained during the peak of pelagic sealing, will perhaps never again be surpassed in volume, though certainly in refinement of detail. Townsend's map, based on a total take of 304,713 seals from 1883 to 1897, showed the position of sealing vessels in all months of the year except October and November. The suggestion is often heard that pelagic sealing was, and could be again, a practical method of harvesting fur seals. But Townsend gave counter arguments, among them the difficulty of law enforcement, the unreliable statistics of the kill, the waste through buck-shot-riddled skins, the loss of seals by wounding and sinking, the inhumanity of pups starving on land, and the hazard to men and ships.
     
  9. The first attempt to mark seals by hot-iron branding was conducted by Murray (a cattleman from Colorado) on North Rookery in August 1896. Totals of 337 female pups and 11 female adults were branded in 1896 and 7,251 female pups and 118 female adults in 1897. The purpose was to deliberately scar the pelts in order to make them unattractive to pelagic sealers. The program was continued through 1902 on St. Paul and 1903 on St. George. We [Scheffer, et al.] believe that no adults were branded after 1897 A nearly complete record of the female pups, numbering at least 22,833 branded from 1896 to 1903, was compiled by [G. Dallas] Hanna.
     
  10. In addition to branding, a second experiment designed to discourage pelagic sealing was carried out in 1896-97. The plan was to round up large numbers of bachelors after the close of the sealing season, to hold them for a month in a corral, and to release them in autumn when the pelagic sealers were leaving the Bering Sea. Conceived in desperation, the plan did not give birth to a management system.
     
  11. On 19 August 1896, the sex ratio of pups on Gorbatch Rookery was found to be 246 males, 212 females. Many years later, on 4 August 1950, [K. W.] Kenyon and Scheffer repeated the study, finding 505 males, 495 females.
     
  12. Jordan and Clark gave the specific name alascanus to the Pribilof seals on account of the slight, though permanent and constant differences from Asian seals. The name stuck until [Leonhard] Stejneger pointed out that it was preoccupied by Walbaum's 1792 name cynocephalus. Finally, [Ford] Wilke showed that Asian and North American seals cannot be told apart on anatomical grounds, and the name ursinus for the northern fur seal came again into use.

No scientific studies were made from I898 to 1903, inclusive. Walter Irwin Lembkey was [U.S. Fish Commission] agent in charge from 1898 or 1899 to 30 June 1913, during the years when the seal herd was declining to its lowest level in history. He made routine counts of seals but was opposed to exploratory research.
 

1900 to 1939 >>>
 


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