Lord Salisbury to Sir Julian Pauncefote.

No. 74.]

Sir: I have had under consideration, in communication with Her Majesty’s secretary of state for the colonies, Mr. Sherman’s note of the 9th ultimo on the subject of the fur-seal fishery, of which a copy was inclosed in your excellency’s dispatch, No. 98, of the 13th April.

Mr. Sherman urges that all killing of fur seals should be suspended [Page 278]for the present, and that a joint conference of the Powers concerned should meet at an early date to agree upon the measures necessary to preserve the seals from extermination and to restore the herd to its normal conditions.

The same proposals were made in the note from the United States charge d’affaires of the 10th ultimo, a copy of which was transmitted to your excellency in my dispatch, No. 71, of the 22d April, with instructions as to the answer to be returned to the United States Government on the subject.

Mr. Sherman, however, adduces certain statistics in support of the contention that the seals are threatened with early extermination, which makes it necessary for Her Majesty’s Government to deal with his dispatch in a separate communication.

With regard to Mr. Sherman’s complaint that the United States Government had not been furnished with a copy of Professor Thompson’s report of his investigations last year, I have to state that Her Majesty’s Government regret the delay that has occurred in the matter. It has been caused partly by Mr. Thompson’s professional duties, and also by the necessity of his waiting for certain notes and information which he had asked Mr. Macoun, the agent of the Dominion Government, to furnish him. The report is, however, now in the hands of the United States Government.

Mr. Sherman proceeds to state that, in the absence of Professor Thompson’s report, the President has been forced to reach his conclusions as regards the condition of the seal fishery by a careful study of Dr. Jordan’s report and other ascertained facts and statistics. It is to be regretted that Mr. Sherman has not referred to the passages in Dr. Jordan’s report on which the conclusions of the President have been arrived at. So far as Her Majesty’s Government can judge in the absence of such indications, the President’s conclusions would appear to be based only on general assertions and deductions in that report.

Mr. Sherman states that 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 harems of breeding cows in the season of 1890 as compared with that of 1895, and that it further conclusively appears from the report that this diminution has been caused by pelagic sealing.

Dr. Jordan, however, states on page 21 as follows:

In 1895 Mr. Murray made a careful count of the number of harems of the two islands, finding 5,000 in all. At the same period in 1896 he found that the number of harems was reduced to 4,853; a loss of 3⅕ per cent, the number of bulls without harems having increased 7 per cent.

On page 16 Dr. Jordan himself gives the number of harems in 1896 as 5,009; a small increase on Mr. Murray’s count of 5,000 in 1895, instead of a decrease of less than 3 per cent (not 3⅕ per cent, as calculated by Dr. Jordan). Similarly, as regards the number of breeding cows, Dr. Jordan’s count, as recorded on page 16, gives 81,793 for 1896; while the figures for 1895 as given by himself on page 20 were only 70,423. The state of the rookeries in 1895 as compared in 1896 is fully dealt with by Professor Thompson, and is referred to in my dispatch No. 71 of the 22d ultimo, and it is therefore unnecessary to discuss the matter at length. That report also deals, so far as the information at present available is concerned, with the question of the mortality of pups owing to the killing of their mothers at sea, and the general conclusions at which he arrived, as set forth on page 25 of his report, show that the number, 14,473, at which Mr. Sherman places the deaths from this cause, must be subject to very large deductions.

[Page 279]

It may be the case, as stated, that it was as easy in 1880 to procure 100,000 skins on land of the same quality as those taken during the season of 1896 as it was to obtain the catch of last year, viz, 30,000; but it must not be forgotten that in 1890 not even 30,000 skins could be obtained. The question of the comparative ease or difficulty with which a stated catch was obtained in two years so far apart as 1880 and 1896 would, even if the same individuals were employed on each occasion, be an uncertain foundation on which to base any estimate of the comparative numbers of the herd. But Her Majesty’s Government have never denied that the herd has diminished largely since 1880, though they maintain that any share pelagic sealing may have had in bringing about that decrease is insignificant; compared with that of other causes which appear to be overlooked in the United States.

If, as alleged, the number of breeding females in 1880. was four times as many as in 1896, or 600,000 in the former year and 150,000 in the latter, while in 1890 there were 280,000, the figures completely negative the conclusion that pelagic sealing has been the cause of the decline, for in the eleven years—1880 to 1890—while the herd was reduced, according to Dr. Jordan’s estimate, by 320,000 breeding females, only 246,902 seals were killed at sea, while in the period 1891 to the end of the spring season of 1896 the pelagic catch reached a total of 269,388, and during this period the decrease in the number of breeding cows was only 130,000.

A herd of 600,000 breeding cows should mean, according to Dr. Jordan’s estimate, an annual addition of 100,000 breeding cows to the rookeries, yet in the eleven years—1880 to 1890—while the pelagic catch only averaged some 22,000 a year, there was not only no addition to the rookeries, but an average annual decrease of some 30,000. If this enormous loss were entirely due to pelagic sealing, as Dr. Jordan maintains, it would have doubled when pelagic sealing doubled, and the herd ought to have ceased to exist some years ago, yet during the years which followed, with a herd supposed to range from 280,000 to 150,000, with an annual addition of cows to the rookeries which should, if Dr. Jordan is correct, have been from 48,000 to 25,000, the pelagic catch has averaged about 50,000 a year, yet the loss to the rookeries has been only some 25,000.

These statistics of Dr. Jordan’s, as set forth in his report, prove clearly that the loss to the herd in the period during which pelagic sealing has been a large factor in the influences affecting it has been insignificant compared with the destruction which went on prior to 1890 on the islands, and that the effect on the herd of that mode of sealing is much less serious than that of killing on land restricted to males only.

The frequent occurrence, moreover, of seasons characterized like that of last year by weather during which sealing operations at sea are interrupted, affords a natural protection to the herd from exhaustion by pelagic sealing. The difference between the spring catch on the northwest coast in 1895 and 1896 furnished an excellent illustration—52 vessels in the former year securing only 8,383 skins, while 41 vessels in 1896 secured 11,786 skins. The falling off in the Bering Sea catch last season, which Mr. Sherman cites as due to the reduction of the herd, was, according to the information in the hands of Her Majesty’s Government, fully explained by the interruptions due to bad weather; and as the great fall in the price of skins has led to a smaller number of vessels fitting out for the fishery this year, their contention that there is no immediate danger to the herd, so far at any rate as pelagic sealing is concerned, appears to be fully justified. But if the proceedings which led to the wholesale reduction of the seals between 1880 and 1890 [Page 280]are resumed, and all the best young male life is destroyed, there can be no question that the herd will at an early date cease to be of commercial importance.

In Mr. Sherman’s note the killing of 30,000 males last year is justified on the ground that “it was plain upon scientific investigation that the dangerous mortality among female seals brought about by pelagic sealing had left the number of bulls greatly in excess of the due proportion between the sexes,” and that “to properly care for the herd it became necessary to remove as far as possible this menacing excess of male life upon the islands.”

If there was such a “menacing” excess of bulls, it is unfortunate that instead of attempting to reduce the excess, the killing was confined to males who would not become “bulls” able to take a place on the rookeries for another three years, during which period, so far as the killing of 1896 is concerned, the alleged excess of bulls on the rookeries will continue.

Mr. Sherman, in the conversation reported in your excellency’s dispatch No. 96, of the 9th April, pointed out that Great Britain was quite as much interested as the United States in the recuperation of the fur-seal species.

As a matter of fact, the interest of this country has now for some years exceeded that of the United States, and should the herd be destroyed, a large amount of British capital will be lost, and a large number of British subjects thrown out of employment. They have therefore reason to be more anxious for the establishment of proper regulations than the United States, but the examination of the reports of last year’s investigations, while it has shown that there is no indisputable evidence that the herd has quite recently been decreasing, and that there is no ground therefore for immediate alarm, has also shown that all previous statements as to the numbers of the herd have been conjectural, and that there is consequently no means available for testing the efficiency of the existing regulations, or for showing the direction which any amendment of them should take.

To enable a thoroughly satisfactory revision of them to be made accurate statistics should be available, extending over a sufficient period to eliminate accidental circumstances affecting the herd during the greater part of its life, which is spent where observation is impossible.

Until such observation is available, it would, in the opinion of Her Majesty’s Government, be premature to enter upon the proposed conference to discuss measures based on conjectures admitted to be of doubtful value, and the interests of this country in the question are too serious to warrant Her Majesty’s Government in imperiling them by the adoption of any hasty decision.

Your excellency will read this dispatch to Mr. Sherman and leave a copy of it with him should he desire it.

I am, etc.,

Salisbury.