XIV. FUR-SEAL FISHERIES (Historic Information)
Enwrapped in constant summer sea mists, which concealed them almost absolutely from chance observation, the breeding grounds of the Alaskan fur-seal wee finally discovered by a patient and persistent fur-hunter, Gerassim Pribilof, in 1786, after whom the group of four islands is named. The principal islands, St. George and St. Paul, are 30 miles apart, and near by are the lesser islet of Otter and the waterless ledges of Walrus. St. Paul has an area of some 35 square miles, its highest elevation is 600 feet, and the population numbers about 300; St. George has an area of 27 square miles, its elevation is 930 feet, and the population about 100; uninhabited Otter Islet has an area of about 4 miles, while the flat-topped Walrus reef scarcely measures a tenth of a square mile.
The group is about equidistant, 200 miles, from Unalaska to the south, St. Matthew to the north, and the Alaskan mainland to the east. This isolation, the character of the frequented beaches, and the humidity of its almost sunless climate are elements that have done much to conserve these immense herds of fur-seal as a limitless source of wealth, until the introduction of the exterminating pelagic or open-sea hunting, which presents another example of reckless commercial exploitation that is utterly regardless of the welfare of future generations.
Practically the Pribilofs have two seasons only, cool, rainy, and foggy summers from May to October, and dry, cold, and stormy winters, with very high winds, from November to April.
A few creeping willows are the only trees, but here and there shrubs furnish forth black currants and red salmon berries in good seasons. With difficulty lettuce, radishes, and turnips are raised while mushrooms grow in abundance. In addition, rank grasses, beautiful flowers, delicate mosses, and luxuriant ferns make much of the landscape beautiful during the short summer season. Of animal life there are foxes blue and white on the islands, but the arctic lemming is restricted to St. George.
Aside from the fur-seal, the birds of the Pribilofs are of the greatest interest. There are two great bird rookeries on the face of the bluffs of St. George, and on the table-topped Walrus ledge.
"The latter place," says Elliott, "affords within the smallest area the greatest variety of nesting and breeding birds, for here the arrie, many gulls, cormorants, sea-parrots, and auks come in countless numbers. . . . Hundreds of thousands of these birds are thus engaged [in hatching eggs], roosting stacked up together as tight as so many sardines in a box, as compactly as they can be stowed, each and all uttering an incessant, muffled, hoarse, grunting sound.
"Here, without exertion or risk, the naturalist can observe and walk among tens upon tens of thousands of screaming waterfowl, literally ignored and surrounded by these feathered friends.
Of the eggs, Elliott relates that in 1872, six natives, in four hours, loaded a bidarka (large boat) of four tons burden to the water s edge, with the gayly colored eggs of the arrie (lomvia arra).
It is the otary or eared seal, commonly known as fur-seal, that is of predominating importance in these islands, this species being the most valuable of all maritime mammals in commercial productivity. The present method of rookery sealing was introduced by Pribilof in 1786, which speedily led to fierce rivalries and the settlement of the Pribilof group by 137 natives from Unalaska and Atka. The preservation of the herds from utter destruction was due to the monopoly granted the Russian Trading Company in 1799. Then the policy was adopted, which remains unchanged today, of restricting the killing of seals to agents of the leasing company.
In 1868 Congress made the Pribilof group a fur-seal reservation, and in the Act of June, 1870, for the preservation of fur bearing animals, provisions were made for the leasing of the islands for a term of years. The first lease was made in 1870 for twenty years to the Alaska Commercial Company, under well-guarded restrictions to insure the preservation of the seal and to guard the welfare of the inhabitants of the islands. The company was authorized to take annually not more than 100,000 sealskins, paying therefor on a sliding scale, while certain food, fuel, and educational facilities were to be furnished the natives, whose liberty of action and removal were likewise insured. In 1890 the lease passed to the Northern Commercial Company, whose rights expire in 1910. Under the administration of these companies the conditions of life among the natives have very materially improved, and they are unsurpassed by the Aleuts of any other islands as to education, religious training, material well being, or other civilized conditions.
Fur-seal Rookery on St. George Island, Pribilof.
The seals resort to the Pnbilof Islands for breeding purposes in the early part of June. The mother has one pup, born about the end of June, which by the early days of August has learned to swim and is ready to leave for the south. Full-grown seals of four years weigh about 200 pounds, and increase somewhat in weight after that age.
Under existing law the only seals that can be legally killed in Alaska are: first, by the Pribilof natives for food; second, by Sitkan natives in the coast waters; and third, by the authorized lessors, the Northern Commercial Company.
Under the terms of the lease only the males are killed, and from 1870 to 1890 the number was limited to 100,000 annually. These were taken between the middle of June and the first of August, when their skins are in prime condition. Since 1890 the number to be killed has been restricted to 40,000, but the largest number taken in late years was 30,654 in 1896, and since that date the catch has not reached 24,000.
The high value of sealskins caused Canadian fishermen to attack the seals passing to and from the Pribilofs and to shoot them outside the three-mile limit, often killing both male and female, three-fourths were females. As this industry was equally important to Great Britain, where the skins are dressed and dyed, an arbitration conference was eventually held at Paris in 1893. Under the regulations there formulated, Great Britain and the United States agreed to limit pelagic sealing by prohibiting it at any time within sixty miles of the Pribilof Islands, and permitting it to be followed in the rest of Bering Sea only between May 1 and July 31 of each year. Sealers were to be licensed, and forbidden to use firearms or explosives in fur-sealing.
As pelagic sealing is still allowed, there has, however, been no practical relief by the action of the Paris conference. The destruction by pelagic and coast hunting increased from 23 per cent, of the grand total in 1889 to 58 per cent, in 1890. The disastrous effects were speedily evident, as the number of skins taken on the seal islands fell from 102,617 in 1889 to 7,390 in 1893, as against 30,812 taken that year by pelagic and coast hunters. That such action was destructive to all concerned, pelagic hunters as well as the authorized agents, is shown by the values of all sealskins taken in 1893, $584,680 as against $2,298,204 in 1888, showing that more than three-fourths of the industry had been destroyed in five years. The number of fur-seals killed on the islands averaged 14,969 for the five years ending with 1908, as against 104,245 in the five years ending with 1889.
It is estimated that the seal herd in 1867 numbered about 5,000,000; in 1873, about 3,200,000. Pelagic, or open-sea, hunting means annihilation, as very many so killed are nursing mothers. Only a small proportion of those shot are saved, so that the whole pelagic fishery means wanton waste. As a result the seal herd at the Pribilof group scarcely exceeded 200,000 in 190d, of whom about one-third were females.
Two pelagic fleets now operate each summer, one from Canada and the other from Japan. The Canadian fleet, as a rule, strictly observes the Paris regulations; but Japan, being free from such restrictions, is bound only by the international regulations, which prohibit fishing in United States waters.
The Canadian fleet consists of about sixteen schooners, but their catch is supplemented by the hunts of coast Indians. The entire Canadian catch has gradually fallen off, being 10,832 in 1005, 9,386 in 1906, and 5,397 in 1907.
The Japanese fleet has gradually increased and now numbers about thirty-seven sail. Unfortunately the Japanese have in several cases violated law and proprieties. Doubtless many of the vessels confine their operations to open-sea captures, but they do not observe a closed season. In at least one instance their voyages partook of a piratical nature. In 1906 not only did they enter the three-mile limit of the Pribilof group, but they even attempted to plunder the rookeries on St. Paul Island in 1906. They were repelled by force, whereby seven men were killed and twelve captured, the latter escaping with three months imprisonment. Japanese sealers again invaded the United States in 1907, but only two vessels were captured in flagrant operations, though more than thirteen thousand fur-seal, skins were taken by them in Alaskan waters. Unless better counsels prevail, the pernicious activity of the: Japanese sealers will annihilate the Pribilof seal herds within a few years, and deprive the world of an important industry that has existed for over a century, and which, if properly conserved, would for centuries to come yield $1,000,000 or more annually.
Unless conditions are changed the seal-islands will soon become a financial burden. Even now the United States is obliged to support in part the natives whose employment is thus being destroyed, their earnings in 1908 at St. George being less for seal-catching than for foxes.