Mr. Sherman to Sir Julian Pauncefote.
Washington, April 9, 1897.
Excellency: Circumstances beyond my control have delayed an answer up to this time of the note which you did me the honor to address me under date of the 23d ultimo, wherein you advise me of the desire of your Government that Professor Thompson should revisit the seal islands in Bering Sea, and that the same facilities and accommodations which were last year provided for the British agents may be afforded on the comtemplated visit.
The Government of the United States has always cheerfully welcomed the visit to the Pribilof Islands of duly authorized British agents who were desirous of making an impartial and scientific study of the seal herd which has its home on those islands, and if your note had been confined to this request, it would have received the prompt and favorable reply for which you expressed a desire. But it contained statements of fact and conclusions reached by Her Majesty’s Government of such a serious character that I felt it my duty to lay the note before the President for his consideration and instructions. Notwithstanding the many and absorbing questions which demand his time in the inauguration of his Administration, he has given to the subjects suggested by your note the preferential attention which their importance demanded, and though he has as promptly as possible devoted his time to the examination and consideration of the facts and correspondence, I have not until the present been able to make the response to your note which a due regard for its tenor required.
The President instructs me to say that he is greatly concerned as to the present depleted condition and the prospective early extinction of the Alaskan seal herd. He can not agree with your note as to the conclusions reached by Dr. Jordan in his report. Unfortunately for the Government of the United States, it does not have the information contained in Professor Thompson’s report possessed by Lord Salisbury. Feeling that the result of the investigation made in 1896 by the scientists of the two Governments should be respectively made known to each other at the earliest practicable date, my predecessor caused Dr. Jordan’s report to be promptly prepared, and copies of it have been in the hands of the British Government for some time past. It is much regretted that a similar course was not pursued as to the report of Professor Thompson, and peculiarly unfortunate that another season of pelagic sealing should be entered upon without any opportunity on the part of my Government to examine that report.
The President is therefore forced to reach his conclusion on the points treated of in your note by a careful study of Dr. Jordan’s report and [Page 265]other ascertained facts and statistics. Dr. Jordan’s report shows conclusively that there has been a distinct and steady decrease both in the total number of breeding seals and in the number of breeding cows in the season of 1896 as compared with that of 1895. It further appears from said report conclusively that this diminution has been caused by pelagic sealing, the most destructive effects of which are manifested in Bering Sea in August, at which time at least two-thirds of the catch consists of females, who are then leaving the islands for food for their pups. It is further shown that the number of pups thus dying from starvation, their mothers having been killed at sea, amounts, for the season of 1896, to 14,473. It is further apparent from said report that it was as easy in 1880 to procure on land 100,000 skins of the same quality as those taken during the season of 1896 as it was to obtain the catch of last year, namely, 30,000. The number of breeding females is not over one-fourth as many now as in 1880. These facts lead Dr. Jordan to the positive conclusion that pelegic sealing will ultimately result in the practical extinction of the herd.
Turning to the statistics of the catch in Bering Sea, it appears that 37 vessels in 1894 killed 31,585 seals, while in 1896, 67 vessels only secured 29,500. The average catch per vessel in Bering Sea in 1894 was 853 as compared with 440 in 1896. It may be claimed that the land catch increased in 1896, as compared with 1895, from 15,000 to 30,000, and that this may have had some influence upon the decrease of the pelagic catch of 14,669 in 1896 as compared with 1895. It should be remembered, however, that the average percentage of females to males in the Bering Sea catches of both British and American vessels was about two-thirds females to one-third males. At the utmost, therefore, the increased catch on the islands would have affected the pelagic catch a little more than 4,000 skins leaving a decrease of at least 10,000 unaccounted for except by a falling off in the female seals. It should further be remembered that the catch on the islands was increased in 1896 to 30,000, because it was plain, upon scientific investigation, that the dangerous mortality among female seals brought about by pelagic sealing has left the number of bulls greatly in excess of the due proportion between the sexes, and to properly care for the herd it became necessary to remove, as far as possible, this menacing excess of male life upon the islands.
The further startling fact appears that in Bering Sea the total catch decreased from 44.169 in 1895 to 29,500 in 1896, a decrease of 33 per cent in the herd’s capacity to yield a pelagic catch, and if allowance is made for the seals which the pelagic sealer was prevented from taking by the increased land killing of 1896, the percentage of decrease in the capacity of the herd for such a yield is still found to be about 25 per cent in one year. When it is further considered that the present number of breeding seals (a little over 143,000 in 1896) is but little more than one-half of the number (280,000) computed to be on said islands in 1890, it must become evident that before arrangements can be concluded for the new regulations for the season of 1899 there is grave reason to fear that the herd will have reached a stage so low that recuperation can be secured only with great difficulty, if at all.
From the foregoing and other facts which might be cited, the President is forced to express his strong dissent from the conclusions which seem from your note to have been reached by Her Majesty’s Government, that there is no such imminent danger of the early extermination of the seal herd as to call for any action by the two Governments [Page 266]before the close of the season of 1898. On the contrary, he feels that if the destruction goes oh meanwhile there will be little occasion for action then, as the herd will be so far reduced as to render its further protection fruitless. The expression “no reason to fear that the seal herd is threatened with early extermination” is noted with surprise. Is it the intention of the British Government to delay action until the verge of extinction is reached? Does that course commend itself to its sense of justice and humanity? Is it right that the great interests of a friendly power and the existence of a useful race of animals should be exposed by the continual practice of a means of slaughter which it is conceded will ultimately result to their destruction?
The Paris Tribunal reached the conclusion, upon the facts before it, that a certain amount of pelagic sealing could be carried on without serious danger to the continued existence of the herd, and upon this conviction it authorized the practice of pelagic sealing under certain restrictions as to time and methods. But the experience of the past years since the decision at Paris has shown that the conclusion there reached is not sustained by the facts, and that pelagic sealing, if persisted in, will sooner or later result in practical extermination. Such being the ascertained fact, it seems to the President just and right that the practice authorized by the tribunal under a fallacious conclusion should be abandoned or modified in such a way as to accomplish the declared purpose of the Paris arbitration—the continued existence and preservation of the herd.
In view of the foregoing conclusions, the President has directed me to communicate by cable to the embassy in London his desire that the subject be brought at once to the attention of Lord Salisbury, with his urgent request that a modus vivendi should be agreed upon, with equitable provision for the interests involved, suspending all killing for the season of 1897, and that this should be accompanied by an arrangement for a joint conference at an early day, of the powers concerned, to agree upon measures necessary to preserve the seals of the North Pacific Ocean from extermination and to restore them to their normal condition for insuring continued existence. Our representative in London was instructed to urge an early answer to the proposal, as the President desired to know whether he could rely upon the friendly cooperation of Great Britain.
In communicating to you, Mr. Ambassador, the foregoing action of the President, I invoke your good offices with your Government at London to secure from it such favorable action as will tend to cement our relations of cordial cooperation and friendship.
I have, etc.,