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Fur Seals and Other Living Things

by Kieran Mulvaney

August 22, 2007

Looked at up close, fur seals seem really improbable animals. Underwater it is a different story: slick and streamlined, they arc gracefully through the element for which Nature intended them. But on a rocky beach on St. Paul Island, those same flippers which propel them effortlessly beneath the waves look like an afterthought, a sick joke on the part of a disinterested creator: “Well, I have these things left over, and I have to use them on something, so I may as well stick them on these seals.”

They waddle and slither unconvincingly across the terrain, trying not to stray too close to their neighbors for fear of sparking a fight. As it is, little skirmishes seem on the verge of breaking out all the time, before the big bulls step in to restore order with an intimidating, snarling roar. The whole scene is a cacophony of chaos, seals constantly grunting, barking, and snorting, the youngest of pups suckling, slightly older ones play-fighting, and the oldest of them, six to eight weeks old, frolicking in the surf, learning to become comfortable in the water, and learning to fish.

The fur seals on the beach are breeding males, females, and pups. Once all the pups are weaned and able to look after themselves, breeding season will begin, and then the lunges and fake fighting will be pushed aside in favor of an altogether more aggressive stance: teeth will be bared and blood will be shed, and the beach, already noisy, will become louder still.

Over on the other side of the island is a “Bachelor Beach,” a haulout frequented by males too young or too old to breed. Nearby—hard to make out now, covered by wild celery and thick grasses—is the outline of the original village established by Russian settlers in the 1780s. Its proximity to the seal beach is not accidental: it was the presence of fur seals that first attracted the Russian explorer Gerasim Pribilof to these islands, and it was to hunt and harvest these seals and their fur that the Russians forcibly removed Unangan (Aleut) families from Unalaska and Atka to St. George and St. Paul.

After Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, Americans assumed control of the fur seal fishery of the Pribilofs, but they showed no more concern than had their predecessors for either the seals or the humans they were enslaving to kill those seals.

During the first half of the 20th century, the Pribilovians were regarded, not as US citizens, but as wards of the state. They were paid only in meager provisions; they were not permitted to leave the island without permission; and they were forced to work from the age of 16. Even marriages were arranged by government officials. While the worst of this indentured servitude was stamped out after World War II, the inhabitants of the Pribilofs remained, in effect, economic slaves, forced to hunt ever-growing numbers of seals to satisfy the desires and profits of peoples far away.

Fur sealing ended on St. George in 1973, and on St. Paul in 1985, amid much bitterness and controversy. The fur seal population has not recovered, but nor has that of the resident Unangans. Today, among the 108 people of St. George, unemployment is 80%.

Our guide tells us that the big fur seals we are looking at are not as big as they used to be; that in recent years the seals on the island, presumably unable to secure the nutrition they need, have been thinner than before. There are fewer of them, too; the population is in a steady decline.

The northern fur seals of the Pribilofs need to be protected. But that protection can not take the form of yet another wave of officials focusing their efforts on restricting the subsistence hunting that still remains, while the bottom trawlers which are squeezing the life out of the Bering Sea ecosystem continue on their rampage with impunity.

The Bering Sea is dying. The way to save it is to stop those who are killing it, not those who are as much a part of its ecosystem as any seal and whose future is intricately and inextricably linked to its continued survival.

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