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Fur seal harvest on St. Paul Island

An estimated 2.5 million seals were killed for their fur from 1786 to 1867 (Sims, 1906) when the Pribilof Islands were under Russian control. Restrictions on killing fur seals on land and protecting females were instituted in 1834 by the Russian overseers. The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 and intended to maintain harvesting practices similar to that of the Russians. In 1869, the Pribilof Islands were set aside as a special reservation for the protection of fur seals and the U.S. Treasury was authorized to lease sealing privileges. The first 20-year lease of sealing privileges on the Pribilof Islands was issued to the Alaska Commercial Company and commenced in 1870. Pelagic sealing, taking seals at sea, started around 1868 and proceeded until 1909. Pelagic sealing proceeded to decimate the fur seal population since many seals taken at sea were females, often pregnant. An accurate accounting of the number of seals taken at sea is nearly impossible since many escaped wounded or were killed and sank. It is estimated that the Pribilof population reached a low of 216,000 animals in 1912. Northern fur seals were given protection to recover with the signing of the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911 by Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States. The Convention of 1911 remained in force until 1941. A successive convention was signed in 1957 and amended by a protocol in 1963. The international convention was put into effect domestically by The Fur Seal Act of 1966 (Baker et al., 1970).

After the early years of indiscriminate fur seal harvesting, management of commercial sealing restricted killing to SAMs on the haulouts during the breeding season. However, there was a period of female harvesting in the late 1950s and early 1960s to reach management goals of a maximum sustainable yield and to determine productivity. The commercial harvest of juvenile male seals on the Pribilof Islands reached a peak of almost 96,000 animals in 1956. Commercial harvesting of SAMs was discontinued on St. George Island in 1973 and on St. Paul Island in 1984. St. George Island was set aside as a research control site for scientific study by the United States and the North Pacific Fur Seal Commission (NPFSC). The Interim Convention on the Conservation of North Pacific Fur Seals lapsed in 1984 and led to cessation of commercial harvesting on St. Paul Island. A subsistence harvest has continued on both islands since cessation of commercial operations and has resulted in the kill of less than 2,000 animals a year since 1986. There has not been nor is there commercial or subsistence harvesting of northern fur seals on any other U.S. rookeries or haulouts.

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