CHAPTER 4-16: FISHING AND SEA HUNTING
Americans fish for cod in Alaska waters before 1867
Americans began commercial fishing for cod in Alaskan waters before the 1867 transfer ceremony. Ships sailed from San Francisco to the Shumagin and Sanak islands off the Alaska Peninsula and to the Aleutian Islands to fish for cod. To preserve the fish after they were caught, they were salted. Cod-liver oil was extracted.
Between 1865 and 1900, an average of 10 ships annually fished for cod in Alaska waters. Several companies established shore fishing stations, the first at Pirate Cove on Popof Island in the Shumagin Islands in 1876. Canning cod was unsuccessful. The American public did not like the taste. Although commercial cod fishing continued in Alaska, salmon replaced cod in importance because the American public liked the taste of canned salmon.
Before canneries opened in Alaska in 1878, several salmon salteries operated. The first American shore-based saltery operated at Klawock on Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska by 1868.
Salmon fishing and canning dominate Alaska's commercial fishing industry
The introduction of the canning process sparked development of Alaska's large salmon fisheries. By 1900, over 85 per cent of the fish annually caught in Alaska waters were salmon.
In 1878, the North Pacific Trading and Packing Company opened a salmon cannery at Klawock and the Cutting Packing Company started a salmon cannery near Sitka. The Klawock cannery operated for many years. The machinery from the Sitka cannery was moved to Cook Inlet after two seasons. Other canneries opened in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska. On Kodiak Island, at the mouth of the Karluk River, several canneries were built. In 1883, the Arctic Packing Company established the first cannery in Western Alaska, at Nushagak ire Bristol Bay. By the end of the nineteenth century, 42 salmon canneries operated in Alaska. In 1878, Alaska canneries packed 8,000 cases of salmon; in 1900, they packed 1.5 million cases.
Western Alaskan waters had more sockeye salmon, the preferred species for canning, than Southeast or Southcentral Alaskan waters. It cost a great deal more, however, to establish and operate a cannery in Western Alaska. The distances from markets and suppliers at Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco were greater. Almost all labor had to be imported. Larger companies owned most of the canneries in Western Alaska. Smaller companies more frequently operated canneries in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
The Scandinavian Cannery at Nushagak in Western Alaska opened in 1885.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, A.L. Angren Collection.
Identifier: PCA 35-61
By 1917, 118 canneries operated in Alaska. That year they packed more than half of the world's supply of salmon, nearly six million cases valued at $46 million. Much earlier, however, production had outdistanced demand. Alaska cannery owners organized an association as early as 1891 to sell unsold cases of salmon. This organization led to the creation of a corporation, the Alaska Packers Association, in 1893. Other large companies in the Alaska salmon canning industry included Pacific Steam Whaling Company, Pacific American Fisheries, New England Fish Company, Nakat Packing Company, and Libby, McNeil, Libby.
From the beginning, non-residents dominated the salmon fishing and canning industry in Alaska. Originally, the owners were from San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. More recently, foreign interests, particularly the Japanese, have purchased and operated canneries in Alaska. Many Alaskans resented non-residents exploiting Alaska's salmon resources. Residents felt they and the territory benefited little. When Alaska received territorial status in 1912, control of its fisheries remained with the federal government although the territory was given authority to tax the industry.
Salmon are caught in many ways
Once caught, salmon spoiled quickly. For that reason, canneries were usually built near river mouths where salmon schooled before ascending the stream to spawn. There salmon were caught in barricades placed across the mouths of streams. Although efficient, barricades did not allow many salmon to escape upstream to spawn. Congress outlawed barricades in 1889.
Fish traps were also used. A trap of woven wire and netting was suspended from pilings driven into the ocean floor. Salmon were guided through progressively smaller openings in a series of nets until they reached a center net from which they could not escape. Huge mobile floating traps were introduced in 1907. Alaskans outlawed fish traps in 1959. Many expected this action to help small Alaska fishing operators. Large cannery owners would have to pay more for fish caught from boats. The move also would help maintain the salmon runs.
Floating canneries, where salmon were processed aboard ship, were introduced in Alaska in the 1880s. By the 1920s, they were popular in Southeast and Southwest Alaska.
Smaller operators used gill nets or drag seines. The gill net entangled fish after its head and gills passed through a net square. The nets were anchored from shore or let out from a boat. Drag seines were nets pulled across a salmon run.
Fisheries conservation is concern
Commercial companies fished in Alaska waters with short-sighted aggressiveness. As early as 1899, Alaska Natives appealed to the government to protect the salmon for those who relied on it for food. They also asked for the return of some of their fishing sites that cannery operators had occupied. In 1900, Congress responded to the appeals by requiring that anyone engaged in commercial salmon fishing in Alaska establish a hatchery for sockeye salmon. Most cannery operators waited to see if the regulation would be enforced before investing money in a fish hatchery. Congress failed to provide adequate funds for enforcement.
In 1906, Congress tried a different tactic to force fish conservation. It levied a tax of four cents on each case of salmon canned. A company could receive a 40 cent rebate for every 1,000 sockeye or king salmon fry that its hatchery released. Most cannery owners did not participate in the rebate program.
During the 1920s, the emphasis in regulating the salmon fishery shifted from establishing hatcheries to limiting the length of the fishing season and the number of fish that could be caught with different types of gear. Not until the 1960s did research prove that salmon raised by artificial means could increase the size of the annual salmon runs.
Salmon being unloaded from barges onto a fish elevator at Ketchikan's dock. The tramway carried the fish to a nearby cannery for processing.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, John E. Thwaites Collection.
Identifier: PCA 18-324
The salmon industry requires many workers
Canning salmon required the work of many people. Owners wanted workers who would toil long hours for low pay. The work was "tiring, dirty, smelly, and wet." It was also seasonal. The time, length, and volume of the salmon runs were uncertain. Initially, owners hired Alaska Natives. At the Klawock cannery, almost all of the work was carried out by Tlingit and Haida crews. Alaska Natives had to catch salmon for their livelihood. Many could not work an entire season at a cannery. As the industry expanded and more workers were needed, cannery owners began to hire recent Chinese immigrants in Seattle or San Francisco. These new workers were transported to the canneries in the spring. They worked unloading a season's provisions, making cans, and assembling crates until the salmon arrived. When the salmon season ended, the imported workers were transported back to their home port. Before long, most of the work force came each season from outside Alaska. In addition to Chinese immigrants, Japanese, Mexican, and Filipinos were hired. By the 1890s, the cannery industry hired about 10,000 workers annually.
The Star of Alaska, shown here being pulled by two tugs, was purchased by the Alaska Packers Association in 1904. The ship carried cannery workers and supplies to Southwest Alaska canneries until 1928.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, A.L. Angren Collection.
Identifier: PCA 35-7
In 1903, Alaska cannery owners began to introduce salmon-butchering machines. These machines replaced 15 to 30 cannery line workers. They also increased the rate of production. With the help of an operator, a machine cut off the head, tail, and fins of a fish; split it down the belly; removed the entrails; and cleaned the fish. Although the machines changed the industry, thousands of seasonal cannery workers were still needed in the Alaska salmon canning industry.
Other fish are sought in Alaskan waters
Alaskan waters were also home to halibut, herring, shrimp, and crab. As early as 1878, small herring operations caught and processed around 30,000 pounds of herring valued at $900. A larger commercial herring venture began in 1882 with construction of a herring reduction plant at Killisnoo Island near Admiralty Island. The plant produced 30,000 gallons of oil valued at $7,500 its first year of operation. The oil was used as tallow and as ingredients in printers' ink and in cosmetics.
Japanese began commercial crab fishing in Alaskan waters during the 1880s. Several boats annually caught crab off the Aleutian and Kodiak islands. Only after World War II did Americans begin to fish commercially for crab in Alaskan waters.
Commercial halibut fishing in Southeast Alaska began during the 1890's.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library Vincent Soboleff Collection.
Identifier: PCA 1-312B
Commercial fishing for halibut began in the 1890s. Before cold storage plants, a major difficulty was getting the fish to market before it spoiled. Alaska's glaciers provided a solution. Halibut were packed in wood boxes and glacial ice. The commercial enterprise reportedly began in 1896 when a man named M. McCauley of Juneau shipped two tons of iced halibut to Portland, Oregon. By the early 1900s, halibut accounted for 10 per cent of the fish caught in Southeast Alaskan waters.
Alaska's fishing industry prospers then declines
During World War I, the Alaska fishing industry prospered. Salmon production boomed. In 1919, 135 canneries operated and the salmon pack reached an all-time high of 6.6 million cases. With the European cod fisheries closed by the war, Alaska cod was also in demand. New shore stations to process cod opened along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. Commercial clam fishing in Southcentral Alaska expanded, and a commercial crab fishery started.
After the war, the demand diminished. The number of salmon canneries operating in Alaska during 1920 fell to 76. Production declined to 4.6 million cases that season. Yet, the 1920s and 1930s proved to be a stable period for Alaska fisheries. Then in the late 1930s, after peak salmon runs, the number of salmon in Alaskan waters declined alarmingly. Some parts of Alaska were declared disaster areas. Alaskans blamed over-fishing and mis-management of the fisheries.
Commercial fishing in Alaskan waters continued to decline in the early 1940s because of World War II. Following the war, new markets for Alaska's seafood opened. Shrimp processing plants opened at Kodiak, Sand Point, Dutch Harbor, Squaw Harbor, and Akutan. Crab fishing boomed. In 1980, over 75 million pounds of crab were caught in Alaskan waters. In 1982, a record-breaking 330 vessels fished for crab at Kodiak and 118 vessels fished for crab in the Bering Sea. Markets for previously unexploited ground or bottom fish, such as flounder, were discovered.
The new State of Alaska undertakes to manage its fisheries
With statehood, Alaska received the authority to manage its fisheries. A Department of Fish and Game, an outgrowth of the Department of Fisheries created by the territorial legislature in 1949, was charged to set annual catch limits, to determine types of gear that would be permitted, and to define when and where fishing could take place. The new state also decided to build and operate several hatcheries. By 1983, the state operated 20 hatcheries. Another 15 hatcheries were operated privately or by non-profit groups.
During the 1960s, the fishing industry changed as freezing fish and flying fresh seafood to markets became possible. By 1982, only 51 per cent of the salmon caught in Alaska waters was canned. Although a number of canneries closed, Alaska's fishing industry rapidly expanded. Then in 1967, and again in 1974, the salmon runs in Bristol Bay were so small that both years the region was declared a disaster area. As they had in the 1930s, Alaskans blamed over-fishing and mis-management.
Alaskans felt that limiting the salmon fishing season and restricting types of gear were inadequate measures to preserve the fisheries. In 1972, they voted to amend the state constitution to give the state the power to limit the number of commercial fishers. The state restricted the number of licenses it would issue for commercial salmon fishing. The licenses became known as "limited entry permits." A proposal to repeal the enabling amendment failed in 1976.
The federal government continued to be involved in Alaskan fisheries management after 1959. In 1976, Congress extended American jurisdiction over offshore waters adjacent to U.S. coasts from 12 to 200 nautical miles. The United States government hoped this would give it some control over the increasing numbers of foreign fishing and processing vessels. The government also hoped to conserve the fish.
Alaska's fishing industry is significant to the state and world
After years of dominating Alaska industry, during the first half of the 1980s the seafood industry ranked second behind the petroleum industry. It remained an important source of income for the state and individuals. In 1981, Alaska's fishing industry produced more than one billion pounds of products. Forty per cent of the world's salmon catch was in Alaskan waters during the first years of the 1980s. The fishing industry provided around 44,000 jobs in Alaska. In 1980, around one-half of those employed were non-Alaskans. The industry was plagued with several problems. The crab harvest dwindled by 1983 to one-third of what it was in 1981. A botulism scare in 1982, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled about 50 million cans of Alaska salmon, hurt sales. Many Alaskans objected to increased foreign dominance of seafood processing plants. The debate over who-commercial, subsistence, or sport fishers-would catch what portion of the fish in Alaskan waters intensified.
Americans renew whaling in Alaskan waters
The United States Civil War almost destroyed the American whaling industry. At the beginning of the war the U.S. government bought 40 whaling ships, filled them with stones, then sank them to block the harbors of Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. Throughout the war Confederate ships often attacked and destroyed American whaling ships, which were all from northern ports. In 1865, the Confederate raider Shenandoah destroyed most of the arctic whaling fleet in waters off Alaska. The whaling industry was also affected by the pre-war discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania, where the world's first oil well went into production. Petroleum oil gradually replaced whale oil in many uses such as lamp fuels and lubricants. Despite these obstacles, whaling continued in Alaskan waters after the Civil War ended.
The arctic ice takes its toll
Each whaling season the arctic ice pack trapped or wrecked at least one or two whaling ships. The most disastrous year was 1871. Of 41 ships whaling in arctic waters that season, 32 were trapped between Point Belcher and Icy Cape. The ice pack unexpectedly shifted in early fall and blocked the ships' passage south. Twelve hundred people, including some women and children, crossed 60 miles of ice-choked waters in small boats to reach safety. Amazingly, all reached ships which had escaped the ice pack. The ice crushed some of the abandoned ships and carried others away, never to be recovered.
The whalers took such risks because whaling was profitable. Although the price of whale oil dropped by half in the 1870s, the price of baleen rose. This came about because the best sources of baleen, bowhead whales, had dropped in number and because new uses for baleen developed.
Between 1875 and 1900, baleen replaced oil as the most valued product of whale hunting. It was the chief plastic-like material of the period. Baleen began to be used in corsets and skirt hoops. It was also used for brushes, buggy whips, fishing rod joints, plumes on military hats and helmets, punch bowl ladles, and umbrella ribs.
Shore whaling stations change Eskimo life
In 1884, the Pacific Steam Whaling Company of San Francisco established a whaling station at Point Barrow. The station was to take whales in spring as they moved nearer to shore to their summer feeding grounds. Whaling ships could not enter arctic waters until the ice broke in late dune. Shore stations copied Eskimo methods of catching whales at narrow leads in the ice. This first shore station in the arctic was so successful that within a few years 15 stations operated along the coast. They stretched from Cape Thompson to Point Barrow.
A shore whaling station near Point Barrow. Many of the stations were trading posts as well.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, S.J. Call Collection.
Identifier: PCA 181-48
Each station outfitted as many as 20 crews, composed mostly of Eskimos. Eskimo whaling techniques were similar to those used by New England crews, with one exception: Eskimos attached their harpoons to sealskin floats, New Englanders attached their harpoons to their boats. A harpooned whale could take a New Englanders' boat on a wild ride.
Shore whaling stations influenced Eskimo life. They competed for Eskimo crews, offering trade goods in exchange for employment. The stations offered a year's supply of flour and perhaps a rifle, bullets, and other food in return for two months work during the whaling season. Thus, Eskimos began to take whales for pay rather than for their own use. Many inland Eskimos moved near shore stations so they could work on the whaling crews.
Steam whalers change whaling patterns
Steam-powered whaling ships arrived off Alaska's coast about the time that the first shore what ing stations opened. The Mary and Helen was the first steam whaler to operate in the Alaskan arctic. The ship had a very successful first voyage, arriving at San Francisco in the fall of 1880 with 2,350 barrels of whale oil and 45,000 pounds of baleen. The Mary and Helen's captain credited his ship's success to its steam engines, saying he could stay with the whales when sailing ships could not.
Another new pattern developed with the use of steam whalers. The steam whalers, not dependent on winds, could stay on the whaling grounds longer than sailing ships before returning south in the fall. The steam ships left San Francisco in March. About July 4 they refueled at Port Clarence where there were large deposits of coal. They then whaled off Point Barrow in late summer and in the fall followed the bowheads to their autumn feeding grounds north of Siberia.
Completion of the transcontinental railroad across North America in the 1860s caused another change in the whaling pattern. Completion of the railroad meant that whalers could take the results of their catch to the railhead at San Francisco. The railroad then carried baleen and oil to the eastern United States. This was cheaper and faster than shipment by sea around Cape Horn or across the isthmus of Panama. The whalers' old pattern of wintering and resupplying in the Hawaiian Islands was broken. In its place, the whalers began to make their home port San Francisco.
Whalers move to new areas
Within a few years bowhead whales were scarce in the usual hunting areas. In 1888, Charles Brower, manager of a trading company at Point Barrow, sent scouts east to search for the bowheads' summer feeding grounds. They found large schools of whales in Canada's MacKenzie River delta on the Beaufort Sea. The next year, the Revenue Steamer Thetis located Pauline Harbor on Herschel Island where the whale ships would later winter.
In the summer of 1890, two Pacific Steam whaling ships, the Mary D. Hume and the Grampus, reached Herschel Island near the delta. The Nicoline also reached the delta. All three remained for the winter. The ships were ready when the first whales arrived in the spring of 1891. The Mary D. Hume took 37 whales in the summers of 1891 and 1892 and returned to San Francisco with one of the most valuable cargoes in whaling history. The ship's success led to heavy hunting in the MacKenzie River delta. The Grampus wintered in the Arctic on four of her nine voyages before being fatally damaged by ice near Point Barrow in 1901.
The price of baleen rose as high as seven dollars a pound in the late 1890s as fewer bowheads were caught. The high price invited substitutes and spring steel was introduced for corset stays. In 1907, the price of baleen dropped nearly 75 per cent from five dollars a pound to less than 50 cents a pound. From 1908 on, the few remaining arctic whaling ships were outfitted for fur trading voyages.
New shore-based whaling starts
Although whaling ships were disappearing, shore whaling continued. Stations appeared in Southeast Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands, on Cook Inlet, and at Nome.
The Tyee Company started one of the earliest of these operations at Murder Cove on Southeast Alaska's Admiralty Island. The company operated between 1907 and 1913. Whales caught were boiled into oil or ground into fertilizer. A declining catch and the sinking of the company's gas-powered schooner by a wounded whale ended the operation.
The United States Whaling Company also operated in Southeast Alaska, at Port Armstrong near the southern tip of Baranof Island. The company killed 314 whales in 1912, its first season of operation. Modern harpoon guns were partly responsible for the high kill. These guns replaced traditional hand-thrown harpoons. They could throw a bomb-tipped harpoon 120 feet. After such a harpoon struck a whale, its bomb would explode inside the whale. Only one third as many whales were caught in 1913, however, and catches remained low in following years. In 1923, the company moved to New Zealand.
The harpoon on one of the whaling boats of the North Pacific Whaling Company. The company built a station to butcher whales, and distill oil and make dog food and fertilizer at akutan in Southwest Alaska.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, U.S. Coast Guard Collection.
A group of Norwegians started a shore whaling station on Akutan Island in 1907. Incorporated as the Alaska Whaling Company, the operation changed its name to the North Pacific Whaling Company in 1915. The renamed company started a second station at Port Hobron, Sitkalidak Island, off Kodiak Island. Both stations operated into the 1930s, serving a growing market for dog food and fertilizer made from whale meat.
A different kind of whaling was attempted in Cook Inlet and at Nome between 1915 and 1920. Beluga whale hides could be made into soft gloves. Nets with large, deflated, rubber tubes on their upper edge were used. Whalers stretched the nets across rivers. When tides came in and the water rose, the nets sank to the bottom as the belugas entered the rivers. Then the tubes were inflated, the nets rose to the surface, and the belugas were trapped behind the nets. When low tide came, the small whales could be easily taken. The demand for whale skin gloves passed quickly, and all of the beluga whaling operations ended about 1920.
Whaling becomes independent of shore bases
In the 1920s, a new whaling era began. Large factory ships appeared. These ships could take entire whales aboard through large stern slipways. Complete processing aboard ship made whaling independent of shore bases. Japanese ships entered the Bering Sea in search of fin and right whales and soon were hunting in the Arctic Ocean. Japanese and Russian ships also hunted blue whales in the North Pacific Ocean off Alaska's coasts. New techniques and unrestricted whaling soon drastically reduced the world's population of whales, including those found in Alaskan waters.
Beginning in 1931, international conferences discussed possible limits on whaling. An International Whaling Agreement was reached only in 1937. The United States was the only North Pacific whaling nation to sign the agreement, but by this time Eskimo subsistence whaling was the only American whaling activity in Alaskan waters. World War II halted North Pacific whaling by other nations.
Whaling began again after World War II. Japan and Russia sent most of the commercial whalers that operated in the North Pacific. Although an International Whaling Commission had been established after the war to set whaling quotas, overhunting in Antarctica soon caused the Japanese and Russians to increase their whaling efforts in the North Pacific. In 1966, Japan, Russia, the United States, and Canada met to set quotas for North Pacific whale catches.
A steam whaling ship with whales alongside in Southeast Alaska.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, Case and Draper Collection.
Identifier: PCA 39-497
In the late 1970s, whales became the subject of a controversy that reached far beyond Alaska's borders. Beginning in 1977, the International Whaling Commission, whose members included the United States, temporarily banned all bowhead whale hunting. Alaska's Eskimos thought this was unreasonable and set up an Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission to protect their interests. The whale hunt was important to Eskimo culture. Members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission explained, "To be a Native, one must hunt. To be an Eskimo, one must hunt the bowhead." The bowhead whale hunt gave Eskimos a sense of their heritage.
Butchering a whale at the North Pacific Whaling Company shore whaling station at Akutan.
Collection Name: Alaska Historical Library, U.S. Coast Guard Collection.
After negotiations that involved allowing the Japanese to take an additional 5,681 sperm whales, the Eskimos were allowed a subsistence quota of 12 bowheads. In subsequent years, the International Whaling Commission slowly raised the bowhead quotas for Eskimo subsistence use, but never to a level satisfactory to the Eskimos. As the 1980s began, the controversy continued.
Whalers turn to walrus
While they waited for annual whale migrations, the commercial whalers began to hunt walrus, another source of oil. Hunting walrus was easier than hunting whales. One person with a rifle could kill 100 animals stretched out on an ice floe. The rifle's noise would not disturb the walrus.
Whalers took more than 100,000 walrus between 1868 and 1880. This slaughter severely decreased the Eskimos' food supply. Some ship captains realized that the Eskimos faced starvation because of this. They warned that continued walrus hunting could end with extermination not only of the walrus, but also of the Eskimos who depended on them for food.
Marine mammal act limits walrus hunting
Controversy surrounded not only arctic whale hunting, but also Bering Sea walrus hunting. The number of walrus taken almost doubled in between 1962 and 1977. More often than not, only the tusks were kept and the carcasses left to rot.
The federal marine mammal act of 1977 allowed the state to assume day-to-day marine mammal management. The national government kept a policy-making role. Under the act, the federal government limited walrus hunting to Alaska Natives and established an annual quota of 3,000 walrus. When increasing kills approached this number, the government set quotas for each village. This was very unpopular.
Prior to 1972, the State Department of Fish and Game had permitted sport hunting of walrus and encouraged development of commercial markets. State game managers believed federal officials should increase the number of walrus that could be taken. Their studies showed that the walrus population was too high. This and other disagreements caused the state to return walrus management to the federal government in 1979.
For villages like Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, walrus were an important food source. Hunters in those communities believed that limits and quotas were unnecessary. One hunter said:
You don't know what it is to be an Eskimo. Out here hunting is our way of life. Carving ivory is our livelihood. We don't want welfare supporting us and we don't want to be forced from the villages.
Alaska Commercial Company controls Pribilof rookeries
Several companies competed in taking fur seals from the Pribilof Islands immediately after the United States purchased Russian interests in Alaska. One man, Captain Ebenezer Morgan of New London, Connecticut, even staked out the rookeries under the federal homestead act. He quickly gave up this interest in favor of becoming a part of Hutchinson, Kohl, and Company. This company took 220,000 seal skins in the summer of 1868. Parrot and Company took another 80,000 skins during the same season. Several small companies also took Pribilof Island seals that summer.
The competitive companies soon realized that the fur seal herds would be wiped out if the killing was not controlled. While several companies favored a killing quota, the Alaska Commercial Company--an outgrowth of the Hutchinson, Kohl, and Company--asked the government to lease the Pribilof fur seal rookeries to it. Under this plan, the Alaska Commercial Company would have had sole rights to the fur seals.
In the first seven years of United States control of Alaska, the Congress passed only two pieces of legislation that concerned the territory. The first established Alaska as a customs district and prohibited importing or selling distilled liquor. The second, in 1870, established the Pribilof Islands (often called the Seal Islands) as a reservation.
The reservation act granted a 20-year franchise for operating the Pribilof Island seal rookeries to the Alaska Commercial Company. The act was to preserve the herd by limiting the number of seals killed. In exchange for the monopoly, the Alaska Commercial Company paid the government rent and a royalty fee of $2.625 on each seal skin. The company also agreed to care for the Aleut population that lived on the islands. The agreement called for the company to run an eight-month school for the islands' children and to support widows and orphans. The company's Aleut workers were to be paid $350 to $450 per year and the villages were to be given 25,000 dried salmon, 60 cords of firewood, and sufficient salt and barrels to preserve seal meat.
The first lease ran from 1870 to 1890. During this time, Aleuts killed 1,854,029 Pribilof Island fur seals for the Alaska Commercial Company. The company also leased Russia's Commander Islands and sealed there. By 1885, the Alaska Commercial Company was selling 75 per cent of the world's supply of fur seal skins.
Changing employers (from the Russian-American Company to the Alaska Commercial Company) brought changes for Pribilof Islands Natives. Although the Russians had allowed the Aleuts to keep the seal skins that they needed for making boats, the Americans required them to pay for the skins. Only Aleuts who brought furs to trade were allowed to obtain supplies at the company store. The company did build new houses for the Aleuts, but they were not a success. Traditional Aleut barabaras were very well suited to the Pribilof Islands' climate. Built partially underground, they consisted of sod matted over a timber frame. The new houses were described as "neat and snug." They were lined with tar paper, painted, and furnished with stoves. But, in the cold and windy Pribilof Islands, the poorly insulated frame houses were hard to keep warm.
When Lieutenant J.E. Lutz of the Revenue Marine Cutter Corwin visited St. Paul in 1884, he reported that Aleuts were treated "exceedingly well." Those who wanted to become seal skinners earned as much in two months of work as the average laborer in the United States earned in a year. They also received, free of charge, a "quantity of fuel, salt meat, and condensed milk," as well as housing.
The task of protecting the Pribilof Islands' seals from poachers fell to crews of the revenue cutters, but they lacked jurisdiction to prevent the seals from being killed during their annual migration. The fur seals reached their Pribilof Islands breeding grounds in the spring and left in the fall. By 1878, their migration routes, which took them thousands of miles to the south, had been discovered. Sealing ships from Canada and the United States were beginning to follow the herds to kill the seals on the high seas. Pelagic sealing, as this practice was called, took place in international waters and was not controlled by United States law.
The Corwin, along with other cutters like the Rush and the Bear, was assigned to patrolling the Bering Sea. The cutters were expected to prevent seal poaching from the Pribilof Islands' rookeries and to carry out many other duties.
Governments preserve the seals
During the first decade of the 1900s, Alaskans protested the alarming drop in the fur seal population of the Pribilof Islands. The United States had not succeeded in closing the Bering Sea to pelagic sealing. They had, in 1893, made an agreement with Great Britain that established a 60-mile zone around the Pribilof Islands within which the seals would be protected. The agreement also prohibited the use of guns to take seals in any part of the Bering Sea.
Four years later, Congress prohibited American vessels from pelagic sealing. This did not prevent the British from continuing to take seals beyond the 60-mile Pribilof Islands' reserve. After 1900, Japanese sealing vessels joined them. Some of the Japanese sealers slipped within the 60-mile zone to poach seals on the Pribilof Islands breeding grounds.
It was difficult for the revenue cutters to prevent seal poaching. Usually only one ship was assigned to patrol the islands. When a cutter was caught in fog or bad weather on one side of the Pribilof Islands, poachers could run to the other side unseen. They were willing to take dangerous risks because the stakes were high. It took only moments to club large numbers of seals, return them to the ship, and set out for safety beyond the 60-mile zone. Profits for such a venture could be $10,000 or more.
In 1911, the governments of the United States and Russia, whose fur seal rookeries in the Chukchi Sea were also suffering from overhunting, negotiated a treaty with Japan and Canada to end pelagic sealing altogether. In exchange for protecting the seals on the high seas, the other nations shared the return from pelts harvested ashore. By the time the treaty was signed, very few fur seals remained of the Pribilof Islands' herd. The government suspended commercial sealing for five years to give the herds a chance to recover.
The closure was good for the seals, but hard on families living at St. Paul. They depended on the seal harvest for their income. In 1916, the residents sent a petition to the Commissioner of Fisheries in Washington, D.C. They asked that they be allowed to speak Aleut, that the Orthodox church school at St. Paul be reopened, that the practice of hiring Aleuts from other places for the seal harvests be stopped, and that the government agent at St. Paul "refrain from drinking intoxicating liquor if the Aleuts are prohibited to do so." The agent himself attached a note to the petition saying that the "people of St. Paul are living in actual slavery....This condition...exists and is maintained under the immediate control of the U.S. government."
The Pribilof Island Aleuts were finally granted citizenship in 1924, along with other Alaska Natives. They achieved some degree of self-government in 1934.
By 1980, the fur seal population of the Pribilof Islands had stabilized at about 1.7 million. The four-nation fur seal treaty, however, expired in 1981 but its provisions were continued until a new treaty could be negotiated. Conservation groups pushed to ban all fur seal killing. Scientists argued for a controlled harvest. For the 750 Aleuts on the Pribilof Islands, the fur seals were central to their economy. New markets for seal carcasses for use as dog food and crab bait developed.
Sea otters decimated before ban imposed on hunting them
Sea otters continued to be among the most prized furs that could be taken in Alaska. During Russian domination of the Alaskan fur trade, hunters took an average of 1,481 sea otter pelts each year. In the 40 years after the 1867 purchase of Alaska, American hunters took so many sea otter skins from Alaskan waters that their value exceeded the price the United States paid for Alaska. The number of kills rose each decade after 1867 until 1890.
Most otters were killed at sea. Aleut or Indian hunting parties aboard American and British schooners went after the otter in small boats to shoot them. Smaller parties, both Native and non-Native, also hunted sea otter on beaches and from small boats launched from the shore.
The chief buyer of sea otter skins, the Alaska Commercial Company, paid from $10 to $125 for skins, but discriminated against Natives in doing so. The company paid Aleut hunters with goods, giving, for example, coal valued at $40 a ton for skins that the company valued at $40 to $70. Non-Native hunters, paid in cash, received $80 to $125 for skins of the same quality.
It was clear by the early 1890s that sea otter hunting was going to end either when the otters had been completely killed off or when hunting otters was forbidden. Sea otters were seen only occasionally at Attu, once a populous otter area, after 1882. In the Kodiak district, hunters took a record high of 1,528 pelts in 1885 . By 1890, the Kodiak catch fell to a low of 60 skins. in 1896, the American schooner Challenge hunted there for 18 days without seeing a single sea otter.
The first effective conservation measures were imposed in 1906. Regulations issued that year required hunting ships to clear as for foreign voyages when leaving port to hunt sea otters. The regulations also limited hunting to not less than nine miles from shore. Only three American vessels outfitted for sea otter hunting under these conditions. Two, hunting on the Fairweather grounds off Yakutat, got 16 sea otters. The schooner Challenge, hunting off Amchitka Island, got four sea otters.
After the 1906 season, practically all sea otter hunting in Alaskan waters took place in the Kodiak district between Trinity and Chirikof islands and in the Sanak Islands. In 1910, 40 Aleut hunters on the two American vessels left in the trade took 16 sea otters. That same year, two British Columbia vessels took seven otters and 11 others were found killed or found dead on beaches.
Commercial sea otter hunting came to a formal end in 1911 because of the near extermination of the sea otter population in Alaska. The Fur Seal Treaty of that year agreed to by Great Britain, Japan, Russia, and the United States banned market hunting of sea otters. Only Alaska Natives could hunt the otter, and then only with aboriginal weapons such as spears. Since the Natives had given up their traditional uses of otters during the era of commercial hunting, few otter were taken after 1911. Later, further protection was extended to sea otters when a presidential executive order of March 3, 1913, established the Aleutian National Wildlife Refuge.
Sea otters were only occasionally sighted in Alaskan waters for many years after the ban on commercial hunting. By the 1980s, Alaska's sea otter population had re-established itself in the Gulf of Alaska and along the Aleutian Islands at about 150,000 animals.