Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, With the Annual Message of the President Transmitted to Congress December 6, 1897
Mr. Hay to Mr. Sherman.
London, May 1, 1897.
Sir: I have the honor to call your attention to the inclosed article from the Saturday Review, which will show that public opinion in England is not entirely unanimous in favor of the claims of Canada and of [Page 275]the action of the British Government in declining to consider the subject of new regulations for the protection of seal life.
I have, etc.,
The passing of the fur seal.
For fully two years before our Government decided to dispatch a party of naturalists to the Bering Sea to investigate, from the British point of view, the latest phase of the sealing question, complaints had been made by both the United States and Russia that the operations Of the pelagic hunters were leading to the extermination of the animals from all the breeding grounds on the Pribilof and Command-der islands. It can not be said, therefore, that we, who have a large stake in this pelagic branch of the sealing industry, have moved with undue precipitation in the investigation of what is a very important matter. Lord Salisbury might have chosen, and he may yet choose, if the commissioners so advise, to stand by the terms of the Paris award of 1893, when it was agreed that the regulations passed “for the proper protection and preservation of the fur seal in or habitually resorting to” the Bering Sea should be submitted every five years to a new examination. But this arrangement does not, of course, preclude an earlier reopening of the question if the parties concerned agree upon the necessity of such a step; and if it be true (and there can be little doubt that it is true) that the animals are diminishing in numbers at an alarming rate, it would be an obvious piece of folly on the part of Great Britain, which alone stands in the way, to insist upon the observance of the letter of the award and wait until there are no seals before taking action.
All that is wanting now before we decide upon some course is the report of the Commissioners, which should have been out long ago. Failing any mutually satisfactory basis of agreement, there is reason to fear that the extreme party in America, which country, be it noted, has never been at the pains to conceal its dissatisfaction with the award for reasons which are essentially selfish, may have its way, and that a bill may be passed to empower the Secretary of the Treasury to slaughter every fur seal found on the Pribilof Islands (which are the American islands) and to sell the skins to the best advantage for the benefit of the Treasury at Washington. This proposal to kill the goose that lays the golden egg in a fit of pique does not commend itself as reasonable; but it is significant that the Secretary of the Treasury last year gave the lessors of the fishery, the North American Commercial Company, permission to take twice as many male skins during the season as they were allowed to take the previous year; his reason being that the seals after leaving the rookeries are killed in any case. If the matter is not settled early, we are threatened with another jingo outburst against England. We will no doubt survive it, but for the protection of our own interests it seems desirable that a modus vivendi should not be put off any longer. Mr. Smalley tells us that Professor Thompson’s report will “contain facts showing that much damage is caused by pelagic sealing and the indiscriminate killing of females.” In that case something must be done at once.
That the seals are diminishing in numbers and that they have gone on diminishing in spite of the Paris regulations are facts which unfortunately admit of little question in spite of Sir Charles Tupper’s airy denial. Less than ten years ago an approximate estimate of the animals found on the islands of St. Paul and St. George—that is the two islands of the Pribilof group frequented by the seals—gave a total of 3,000,000. Certainly the rookeries and the hauling grounds were packed so closely that there was literally not room enough for all the seals to live comfortably. A careful count made two years ago resulted in the enumeration of a little over 200,000. Under the terms of the original lease the company in possession of the islands was permitted to kill 100,000 bachelor males every season, and high as that limit appears it was really small by comparison with the number of the whole herd. Down to the time when pelagic sealing began to be prosecuted in the Bering Sea, as well as in the open waters of the North Pacific, there was, by the admission of Sir George Baden-Powell himself, little apparent falling off. In 1890, the last year of the old lease, the Alaska Commercial Company found it impossible to take the number of bachelors or “see-katchies” permitted by law, simply because there were not 100,000 to take. Under the new lease to the North American Commercial Company it was stipulated that the Secretary of the Treasury should fix the annual catch at his discretion. In 1895 Mr. Carlisle found it necessary to restrict the land catch to 15,000 male skins. In that same year the vessels engaged in the pelagic branch of the industry numbered 97, of which 81 were employed in the award area. Between them they killed and recovered 56,291 seals, or a decrease, as compared with the corrected [Page 276]figures of 1894, of 5,547. That this decrease was caused by the falling off in the spring catch along the shores of the United States and British Columbia will be obvious when we state that the catch in the Bering-Sea alone after the close season was 44,169; or 12,584 more than in 1894. All this is quite independent of the Asiatic catch, which did not exceed 39,003 skins, as compared with 79,305 skins taken in those waters—that is, off the Japanese and Russian coasts—in the previous season.
The Paris regulations, it may be remembered, established a close season during the months of May, June, and July, and (among other things) made it illegal to use firearms or explosives in the Bering Sea, or to “kill, capture, or pursue” the seal within a radius of 60 miles of the Pribilof Islands. The American Government has all along maintained that these regulations would fail to protect the herd from undue destruction. But the contention that the only remedy was the total prohibition of pelagic fishing north of latitude 35C was not reasonable; for, apart from the monopoly that the Americans would thereby have gained, there was no adequate ground for depriving the men engaged in this important branch of the trade of their regular occupation. It has become apparent, however, that the regulations were not sufficiently stringent. During the winter months the seals take their long swims into the Pacific. The Russian herd, which breeds on the Commander Islands, heads past the Kurile Islands for the Japanese coast, and in the sparing returns by the way it went. The American herd makes right across from the Aleutian Islands to the British Columbian waters and returns along the shores of Alaska, entering the Bering Sea again by way of Unalaska. The pelagic sealers and the Alaskan Indians meet them, kill as many as they possibly can with spears and Winchesters, register their catch at Unalaska or at Victoria, and take care to be in the Bering Sea by August 1.
The number of females is in excess of the number of males, bull or bachelor, and it happens that between 60 and 70 per cent of the skins taken in the spring are those of gravid females. After giving birth to her pup on one or the other of the islands, the mother finds it necessary to make expeditions into the water in search of food. She is sometimes found—and killed, of course—as far as 200 miles from the breeding grounds. She swims with marvelous celerity, and thinks nothing of a hundred-mile trip. The bulls do not eat on the islands, and rarely go into the water until they quit the place for the season in September or October, and the superfluous males—the bachelors—have no such summer home. Thus it happens that last year 73 per cent of the American and 56 per cent of the Canadian catch outside of the 60–mile radius consisted of females. More than this. A seal pup deprived of its mother dies of starvation, for no other female will adopt it. Last year more than 28,000 pups were found starved to death on the Pribilof Islands, because their mothers had been killed while in search of food beyond the radius. It would be an insult to the reader’s intelligence to point out to him the radical defect and the ultimate outcome of a system under which this kind of thing can flourish. But the difficulty in the way of an easy and satisfactory solution is that in the water it is almost impossible to distinguish between a female and a bachelor seal. It must not be supposed, however, that the men whom the American people are fond of describing as poachers on their seal preserves are Canadians only. About one-half of them are Americans, who “steal that way year by year” from California and Oregon, and in the matter of the illicit use of firearms in the Bering Sea these Americans are notoriously the most unscrupulous. It is satisfactory to know that such repressive measures as may be adopted will operate to the disadvantage of American as well as Canadian pelagic sealers.