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AFSC Historical Corner:  1910 - 1919

Agency Timeline
Early Pioneers
Research and Mgmt.

Pribilof Islands Management Change and the Signing of an International Treaty

fur seals at Tolstoi Beach at St. Paul Island
Fur seals on Tolstoi Beach, St. Paul Island.  Bureau of Fisheries photo, 1914.

In 1910, owing to the abuses connected with pelagic sealing, the Bureau of Fisheries assumed the entire administration of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, including all matters relating to the northern fur seal and fox populations; and the care, education, and welfare of the native population. The Bureau then introduced the first 40 reindeer to the Pribilofs on 25 August 1911 as an experiment to assist the local economy by providing meat, milk, hides, and to serve as burden carriers. By 1937, the number of reindeer had grown to 1,700. To prevent any possible disturbance of the fox and fur seal herds, all dogs were banned from the islands in 1917.

The 1911 ban on pelagic seal hunting (see box below) allowed George A. Clark to work for the Bureau of Fisheries on the first complete census of the various classes of seals on the Pribilof Islands in 1912. That same year, he and naturalist M. C. Marsh, along with local help, used hot iron branding for the first time to permanently mark over 5,000 seals for scientific purposes on the islands. Prior to 1912, the marking of seals – by shearing or clipping an area of fur from the top of the head – was temporary, with the mark disappearing within a year as the fur grew back. A 1913 Bureau report stated: "The fall of 1912 was the first in which there was complete absence on the rookeries of the bodies of seal pups dead from starvation because of the mothers being killed at sea".

Also in 1911, the Alaska Fisheries Service (AFS) was established on 1 July as an operating division of the Bureau of Fisheries, resulting from the 4 March approval of the Sundry Civil Bill. The AFS was charged with administering the services for fur seals, other fur bearing animals, Pacific salmon, and various fisheries in Alaska which had been managed previously by the Division of Scientific Inquiry respecting food fishes.

The June 1912 eruption of Alaska's Mount Katmai covered the Bureau's Afognak salmon hatchery with nearly a foot of volcanic ash, hampering operations and causing heavy losses to both eggs and fry due to suffocation. An estimated 20,000 salmon were killed at Litnik Lake and thousands more were driven from blocked tributary spawning streams back into the ocean. Temporary field stations were erected nearby at Eagle Lake and Kodiak Island. Questions and studies of the potential impact of volcanic ash on lake fertilization ensued  (see "Additional reading" below).

North Pacific Fur Seal and Sea Otter Treaty of 1911
"Under the auspices of the United States Department of State an international conference was convened in Washington on May 5, 1911, for the purpose of concluding a treaty affecting the fur seals of the North Pacific Ocean. The powers attending the conference were Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and the United States. The principle that guided the negotiations seems to have been an acknowledgment of the right of the pelagic sealers to compensation for giving up their preying on the seal herds outside territorial waters. At any rate, the governments possessing seal rookeries agreed to pay the others 15 and 10 percent of the sealskins taken. A treaty was signed on July 7, 1911, and after ratification became effective on December 15, 1911, and was to continue in force for a period of 15 years from that date and thereafter until terminated by 12 months' written notice given by one or more of the parties to all of the others, which notice may be given at the expiration of 14 years or at any time afterwards.

By this treaty pelagic sealing was forbidden in the waters of the North Pacific Ocean north of 30° north latitude and including the Seas of Bering, Kamchatka, Okhotsk, and Japan, with the exception that 'Indians, Ainos, Aleuts, and other aborigines' may carry on pelagic sealing in canoes without firearms under certain conditions specified, among them that these aborigines must not be "under contract to deliver the skins to any person." There is nothing, however, forbidding these aborigines to sell the skins. Otherwise no person or vessel shall be permitted to use any part of the territory of any of the signatory powers for any purposes whatsoever connected with the operations of pelagic sealing, nor shall any sealskins not certified to have been taken legally be permitted to be brought into the territory of any of these powers.

The latter agree to enact and enforce such legislation as may be necessary with appropriate penalties for violations, and to cooperate with each other in taking such measures as may be appropriate and available for the purpose. In addition, the United States, Japan, and Russia agree to maintain a guard or patrol in the waters frequented by their respective seal herds. This would entitle Russia to maintain a guard off the Japanese coasts during the winter and spring migrations of the Commander Islands seals.

From:  Stejneger, L. 1926. Fur Seal Industry of the Commander Islands, 1897 to 1922, p. 289-332. In Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Fisheries, Vol. XLI, 1925. Wash. G.P.O.  (.pdf, 4.18 MB.)

Other significant events:

  • 1910 - Dr. Charles H. Gilbert began applying a new method for ageing Pacific salmon. This adaptation of the European method involved counting ridges on the scales of certain fish. Within 10 years, this ageing method was experimentally tested and universally accepted with regards to the Atlantic salmon.
  • 1910 - Under a Congressional act on 21 April, the U.S. Treasury Department turned over jurisdiction of the minor fur bearing animals in Alaska to the Department of Commerce and Labor.
  • 1911 - Due to the decreasing supply of halibut reported on the Pacific coast, the Bureau of Fisheries conducted a preliminary investigation of possible fishing banks west of Southeast Alaska aboard the steamer Albatross, which departed from Seattle, Washington, on 25 May.
  • 1911 - The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (est. 1902; headquartered in Copenhagen) officially invited the United States to become a member. Represented by the Department of Commerce and Labor, and the Bureau of Fisheries, the U.S. joined the organization in 1912, withdrew during World War I, and did not rejoin again until 1973.
  • 1912 - The coal-burning steamer Wigwam was purchased by the Bureau in the fall for $17 million. Renamed the Osprey, it became the first BOF vessel used for fisheries patrol in Alaska.
  • 1912 - A Congressional act on 24 August created a territorial legislature for Alaska, providing for uniform fishery taxes; the prohibiting of water pollution from lumbering wastes (e.g. sawdust harmful to fish); the prohibiting of non-U.S. fishing for fish, whales, and other marine animals; and certain restrictions on fish traps and fishing areas.
  • 1913 - Fur seal skins from the Pribilof Islands, which had previously been sent to London for sale, were now being shipped by rail from San Francisco to Messrs. Funstein Bros. & Co. in St. Louis for prossessing and auction.
  • 1914 - The U.S. Department of Labor was separated from the Department of Commerce, which retained the Bureau of Fisheries. A small office opened in Seattle's historic Smith Tower building as a temporary administrative center for the Bureau's Pacific coast operations.
  • 1914 - Seattle replaced San Fransisco, California, as the base for purchasing supplies transported to the Pribilof Islands by ship. Skins from the islands were now being brought to Seattle for rail transport to St. Louis.
  • 1915 - William F. Thompson, an early student of David Starr Jordan, began his study of the halibut fisheries of the North Pacific. He later became the director of investigations for the International (halibut) Fisheries Commission, the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission, and the Fisheries Research Institute of the University of Washington. This halibut research was the first scientific study made on the Pacific coast fishery aimed at fishery management.
  • 1915 - In New York, the Bureau of Fisheries purchased Robert Peary's steamship Roosevelt – noted for Peary's Arctic explorations – for use as its first dedicated Pribilof Islands tender. Two years later, the renovated ship was sent to the Pacific Northwest to begin service.
  • 1916 - The canning of clams began in the Cordova district of Alaska.
  • 1917 - A telegraph service was started by the Bureau of Fisheries and the Washington-Alaska Military Cable & Telegraph System to provide several coastal Alaska towns with the daily prices of certain fish being sold in Seattle and Ketchikan. This information proved beneficial to fishermen who were now able to market their products at current prices.
  • 1917 - The BOF sister boats Auklet and Murre were the first vessels built specifically for the BOF's fisheries enforcement work in Alaska.
  • 1917 - The Roosevelt arrived in Seattle and became the first large ocean-going ship to enter Lake Washington when it led a flotilla of vessels during the 4 July dedication for the opening of the Government Locks connecting Puget Sound with the Ship Canal. Soon afterwards, the Roosevelt began her sailings as the Bureau's first Pribilofs Islands tender, dedicated to transporting supplies and personnel to and from the islands.
  • 1918 - The Bureau began using temporary employees during the fishing season acting as "stream watchmen" to patrol against fishing violations and protect the salmon spawning grounds in Alaska. Initially, 10 men using small boats were employed in the southeastern districts. By 1931, the number grew to 220 men employed throughout the territory.
  • 1919 - As a result of a 23 December BOF order, a heightened effort began for erecting markers at the mouths of streams to indicate prohibited areas for fishing.
  • 1919 - Due to concern over the threatened Pacific salmon supply, Dr. Charles H. Gilbert and future BOF Commissioner Henry O'Malley conducted a special investigation of the salmon fishery at several locations in central and western Alaska.
  • 1919 - On 15 July, the BOF's first Pribilof Islands tender Roosevelt was sold for $28,000. To serve as its replacement, the Idaho was acquired and renamed the Eider.

Additional reading on the Mt. Katmai eruption:

  • Schaaf, J. M. (for the National Park Service). 2004. Witness, Firsthand Accounts of the Largest Volcanic Eruption in the Twentieth Century (Katmai). Nat. Park Serv. brochure.  (.pdf, 3.6 MB, also available online from NPS website).
  • Evermann, B. W. 1914. "Eruption of Katmai Volcano", (excerpt from) Alaska Fisheries and Fur Seal Industries in 1913 (Doc. 792), p. 59-64. In Bureau of Fisheries Report of the United States Commissioner of Fisheries for the Fiscal Year 1913 with Appendixes. Wash. G.P.O.  (.pdf, 416 KB).
  • "The Katmai Eruption" A 5-minute video found on Vimeo website (last accessed 1-13-15).

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