Reading #17

Theme 3: Conservation

Period: American (1867 - present)

The following information was excerpted from the National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for St. George Island, 1986.

After the American Purchase, the recipient of the monopoly rights to the islands was to maintain the successful conservation measures applied by the Russian-American Company. A sealing census determined the yearly quota of skins. Henry Elliott, naturalist and Special Treasury Agent with a commission to study wildlife from the Smithsonian Institute, estimated the herds in 1872 at 4,700,000 animals. The Alaska Commercial Company harvested 150,000 seals per year at an annual yield of $2,500,000. This was double the harvest during the [last years] of the Russian-American Company. The North American Commercial Company maintained the harvest quota established in the 1870s even though it became clear that Elliott’s estimates were wildly exaggerated. By 1909, the end of the contract system, there were only 130,000 seals left.

High profits from a resource that required little effort to exploit –– it neither had to be fed, dug up, nor sought out –– attracted international interest, as well. The depletion, often to the point of extinction, of other seal herds turned the focus of the world’s fur seal industry on the islands of St. George and St. Paul. The result was an international conservation interest. While the land harvest certainly had a detrimental effect on the size of the herds, there was an even greater danger. Pelagic sealing, the taking of seals at sea, began in 1868. By the 1890s citizens of the United States, Great Britain, then Canada, Japan, and Russia manned pelagic sealing fleets in the north Pacific. Pelagic sealing was most dangerous to herd size, as only females range out to sea to feed from the rookeries. Each female killed at sea represented in reality the loss of three seals: the female herself, the pup she carried, as females were impregnated within days of giving birth, and the pup left on shore, since a female will only feed her own pup. The land harvest method limited the kill to bachelor seals, three or four-year old nonbreeding males.

The Paris Tribunal of 1893 was the first in a series of international conferences to prevent the extermination of the northern fur seal. In 1897 the United States outlawed pelagic sealing by U.S. citizens. . . . In 1906 the problem exploded when Japanese citizens were killed while poaching seals in the Pribilofs. In this year of excesses, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to purposely exterminate the herds if some agreement could not be reached. But diplomatic wheels turn slowly; it wasn’t until May 5, 1911, that a quadripartite conference became a reality.

The North Pacific Sealing Convention of 1911, the result of the . . . conference, . . . prohibited pelagic sealing by citizens of the signatory nations, compensating their governments with a percentage of the land harvest. The Convention confirmed the principle that the countries owning rookeries had the right to control the land harvest. The treaty . . . remained in effect, except for a period during World War II, until 1985 when it expired without renewal.

The Treaty mandated research. It created a Standing Scientific Committee. . . . Through its mandate for research and cooperation in the sciences, the Convention not only stood as a landmark in international conservation policy making, but was instrumental in increasing the world’s body of knowledge.

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