I, Nickolas A. Grebnitsky, Russian military chief of the Commander Islands district, with the rank of colonel, make the following statement:
I have been residing on the Commander Islands, and have directed all sealing operations there for the last fifteen years, and during this whole period have been absent from the islands but very little.[Page 442]
I have carefully observed seal life, the condition of the rookeries, and the method of taking seals at all seasons and under all conditions, with the object of keeping the Russian Government thoroughly informed as to its sealing interests, and the proper management of same.
While I have never had an opportunity to examine the Pribilof Islands seals, yet I do not hesitate to express the opinion that that herd and the Commander Islands herd are distinct and do not mingle at all. There are some natives on the islands who are familiar with both, and who state that there is a marked difference in the animals. Besides, my studies as a naturalist enable me to state that it would be contrary to all reason to suppose that they mingle with one another. The Commander herd probably approaches very closely to the Robben herd in winter, and yet it does not mingle with it. Of this I am sure, for I have charge of Robben Island as well as of the Commander Islands, and know the skins of the two herds to be different. The skin of the Commander seal is thicker, has coarser hair, is of a lighter color, and weighs about 20 per cent more than a Robben skin of the same size. It is wholly improbable that the seals of the Commander herd visit any land other than the Commander Islands. I believe they regard these as their home, these islands being peculiarly adapted to their needs at the period of bringing forth their young, and of breeding.
The fact that the Robben Island herd still frequents Robben Island, to the exclusion of any other land, notwithstanding it has been subjected there to the utmost persecution, shows to my mind conclusively that the presence of man will not prevent a seal herd from returning to the same land year after year. Even if isolated instances have occurred (I know of none) in which, for various causes, a few of the Commander Island seals reached other shores, such exceptions would not disprove the general rule above stated.
I can readily understand that a female which had been wounded in the water might be obliged to seek the nearest land and there give birth to her pup. Annually at almost stated periods they arrive at the islands, and immediately proceed to occupy the same grounds which have been occupied during past years, in a way which makes it impossible to doubt that they are familiar with the locality. I believe that at some time during the year every seal comes ashore.
There is no reason to believe that a certain number of any class remain swimming about in the neighborhood of the islands all summer without landing, although there is considerabe difference in the time at which different classes arrive.
Soon after landing at the Commander Islands those cows which were fertilized the year previous give birth to their young. A cow does not, except in very rare instances, give birth to more than one pup in a season. The birth of pups can only take place on shore. Cows never arrive at the islands with new-born pups. But the impossibility of birth in the water is best proved by the fact that the pup when first born is purely a land animal in all its habits. It does not voluntarily approach the water till it is several weeks old, and then it is obliged to learn to swim.
A surf will sometimes wash the young pups off the rocks, when they are sure to be drowned. The pups can not swim at birth, but must be taught by their mothers. A pup would drown if thrown into the sea before learning to swim. Copulation in the water I believe to be [Page 443]impossible, for the act is violent, of long duration, and in general character similar to that performed by land animals. I believe that the seals leave the vicinity of the islands mainly on account of the severity of the winter.
Of course I do not mean to say that they would remain on shore all the year round, as many of them do throughout most of the summer, for they would be obliged to take to the water to obtain food. What I mean is that they would not go so far away as they now do, but would remain around the islands, and thus give additional proof of the unquestionable fact that they regard them as their home. I base this statement upon the fact that during mild winters I have myself seen them in large numbers off the Commander Islands and the Kamchatka coast. This would be in accord with the habits of the seals of the Southern Hemisphere, which, I am informed, are found in the same locality more or less at all seasons.
The seals generally leave the Commander Islands by the middle of November, by which time it has become cold and stormy; but in mild winters they have been on the islands as late as December. I do not think that fur seals should be classed with wild animals any more than sheep or cattle, when out on large pasturing grounds. Seals, unless needlessly frightened, become more or less accustomed to the sight of man among them on the rookeries, and while on land are at all times under his complete control. A few men can drive a large number of them without difficulty. They are intelligent to very high degree, and can be made to become in a short time pets.
The breeding males or bulls are alone aggressive. Seals are polygamous, and the powers of fertilization of the male are very great.
Since the births are about equally distributed between males and females, it follows that under natural conditions there would be a great excess of male life over that actually needed for the propagation of the species; and it is, as in the case of so many other animals, for the positive benefit of the herd as a whole that a portion of this excess of male life be killed off before it is of sufficient age to go on the rookeries. If not killed off the competition by the bulls upon the rookeries for females would be destructive of much life. This competition is already fierce enough.
During some of the years prior to the time of my arrival on the islands there had been considerable indiscriminate killing of seals, without regard to age or sex. But during the fifteen years of my management of the Commander Islands rookeries all seals which have been killed constituted a portion of the excess of males above referred to, and known as “bachelors” or “hollus-chiechie.” This is why the rookeries are to-day in a much better condition than when I first went to the Commander Islands, notwithstanding that until the year 1891 a gradually increasing number of large skins had been taken.
From 1886 to 1890 the average annual catch was about 50,000, the skins all being large ones. The last two years I have reduced the catches, because I now think 50,000 skins somewhat in excess of what the rookeries can yield, and for other causes which I will mention later. I feel very sure that the great cause of this diminution is pelagic sealing. This year I have counted over 3,500 skins seized in poaching vessels, and have found 96 per cent to be skins of females. These were skins taken from Commander Island seals.
As to skins taken near the Pribilof Islands, I counted the skins [Page 444]seized in the Rosa Olsen and found two-thirds of them were skins of females. These were taken, as the log book of the Rosa Olsen shows, over 80 miles from shore. I consider it a false argument to say that the killing of a proper number of the excess of male life is bad, merely because it is an interference with the order of nature.
If not interfered with, nature will produce an overpopulation of the rookeries, which would of course be a bad thing. By the present mode of killing a certain number of young males, population is regulated. No facts can be brought forward to show that this method is not the right one. Past experience shows that it is right. The method is not proved to be bad by showing that during some years too many males may have been killed and the rookeries have thereby suffered. When such mistakes have been made they can be corrected by reducing the number of males to be killed for a few years, for the most absolute control can be exercised over the herd while it is on land.
I claim that the method now pursued, when executed under proper regulation, is in theory and in practice the only one by which sealing can be carried on commercially without injuring the vitality of the herd and its ability to maintain its numbers at the proper limit. It does not cause the seals to change their habits in any way, and I do not believe that even an excessive killing would have the effect of altering the habits of the female seals with regard to landing and cause them to remain about the islands instead of coming ashore.
Cows, except perhaps rare cases of accident or for scientific purposes, are never allowed to be killed on the islands, and the reason for this is that all cows are needed for breeding purposes. To kill, therefore, any cow except a barren one (and there are few barren ones except among the very old cows) inflicts a much greater injury on the herd than the loss of a single life.
It is not true that because it is proper to kill a certain number of males, it is also proper to kill a certain number of females. But, assuming that it might at some time become desirable to kill some females, it would still be wholly improper to kill them without regard to size or condition, as is the case when they are killed in the water.
There is at the present time upon the Commander Islands an abundance of female life for breeding purposes, and there is no fear that any female will not be served through a lack of virile males. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that there were in 1892 relatively fewer females than in former years, and I attribute this to two causes: First, to killing of seals in the water; and second, to raids upon the islands.
The first of these causes is by far the most important. These raids upon the islands have, owing to the great amount of foggy weather, taken place to a certain extent, notwithstanding the greatest precautions to guard against them. The raiders kill males, females, and pups without discrimination. But however injuriously the raids have affected the rookeries, still they are of much less importance than the killing of Commander Island seals in the water.
During the past two summers, and especially during the last one, this killing in the water has become so great that if allowed to continue in future years the herd will be in danger of ultimate extinction. I do riot know exactly how wasteful this method may be, from the fact that all the animals wounded or killed are not captured, though I am told [Page 445]that much loss occurs in that way, and I know that under certain conditions a seal shot dead will sink at once. I can state positively, however, from actual experience and personal examination, that a vast proportion—fully 96 per cent—of the skins taken by this method during the present year are those of female animals. In addition a certain number of the skins are those of very young seals, probably of both sexes, such as are never killed on land.
Very few of the females killed are barren, no matter when or where they are killed. Females taken early in the season are generally heavy with young, in which condition they travel slowly as compared with the other seals. The killing of such a female involves, of course, the immediate loss of two lives. But even when the female is taken after she has been on shore and given birth to her young, this same result follows eventually. For a seat will suckle only her own pup, and the pups are for the first three to five months dependent altogether on their mothers for food. Consequently when the mothers, who after the birth of their pups leave the rookeries in search of food (traveling sometimes considerable distances, I do not know exactly how far), fail to return their pups must necessarily die.
There are always a few dead pups to be found on the rookeries whose death is not due to that of their mothers; but during the last year or two a greater number of dead pups have been actually noticed than heretofore and have attracted the attention of all persons on the islands who are at all familiar with seal life. It can not be successfully contended that they all died of natural causes. There is no disease among the Commander Island seals, and while a certain number of young pups are always exposed to the danger of being crushed to death (but not as a result of the drives which are made to collect the seals for killing) or of being drowned by the surf, yet these causes of death will not account for the greater mortality of pups which took place during the past summer. Besides, the bodies of the dead pups I refer to are those of starved animals, being greatly emaciated.
It is chiefly during the next few years that the effects of the recent killing of females will become most noticeable, because many of the pups which in those years would have become bachelors or “holluschiekie” have never been born, or died soon after birth.
With regard to the driving of the seals from the beaches to the places of slaughter, while it does not benefit them, yet I believe that there are very few cases in which it does them any harm, even if they are redriven. I am sure it does not render them impotent. It should be remembered that, unlike the hair seal, they are fairly well adapted to movements on land, as is proved by the fact that they are in some cases actually driven considerable distances over ground that is both rough and steep. Since the killing of seals in the water is wasteful and in every sense contrary to the laws of nature (which require that special protection be afforded to the females and young of all animals), I am of the opinion that it should be entirely forbidden.
If it is only partly suppressed or prohibited within a certain distance from the islands the evil would not be cured, although its effects might be less noticeable, for the killing of females, many of them heavy with young, would necessarily continue, since all experience shows that female animals always constitute the chief catch of the open-sea seals.