Sea of Slaughter
Over the past couple of weeks, three elephant seals have hauled out on city beaches to rest while their fur moults. Crowds of people have showed up to take pictures, curious to see a slippery wild animal up close. But it’s our behaviour that’s just as curious, because it shows how much our relationship to seals has changed: 50 or 100 years ago, Victorians would have clubbed those seals to death.
Every year in March, vast herds of the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) swim past Vancouver Island, enroute to their summer breeding grounds in Alaska. For centuries, the Nuu-cha-nulth natives had hunted these animals for their thick pelts (far richer than the hairy coats of harbour seals), so when the Hudson’s Bay Company established Fort Victoria in 1843, the natives began offering the pelts for sale. The HBC men were intrigued: sea otter populations were already declining, and the company needed another source of fur. By the 1860s Victoria-based schooners were hunting fur seals along the coast, employing crews of natives armed with harpoons.
Thanks to the HBC, in the mid-19th century fur became affordable in Victorian England. London magazines declared that seal-fur cloaks, touques, and muffs were the height of women’s fashion, and when the Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871, demand boomed across Europe. By 1882, 13 sealing schooners were based in Victoria, selling 20,000 pelts to the London fur market. Then word reached the docks about huge rookeries on the Pribilof Islands, near the southwest coast of Alaska, where two million fur seals haul out to breed between July and November. The race to the north was on.
It was chaos. Foreign hunters clubbed thousands of seals on the islands (see the 1892 photo at top) and sailed away. The American government dispatched warships, claiming the entire Bering Sea as its exclusive territory, and it seized dozens of foreign sealing schooners and threw their crews in jail. But as more vessels arrived it became impossible to police the open water, and the killing escalated.
In 1894, at the height of the industry, Victoria's harbour bristled with the masts of nearly 100 schooners, comprising four-fifths of the entire northwest sealing fleet. That year they brought in 97,474 pelts from Alaska, and the city boomed. Sailors packed the saloons, and stories circulated about notorious Victoria-based captains like Gustav Hansen, the “Flying Dutchman” who’d poached hundreds of Pribilof seals under American gunfire, or Alex MacLean, who was wanted in seven countries and rumoured to have killed dozens of men. As a new biography reveals, Jack London used MacLean as the model for the villainous captain “Wolf” Larsen in his 1904 novel The Sea-Wolf, which has since been made into numerous film versions, starring Edward G. Robinson, Charles Bronson, and Tim Roth.
Under an agreement with the Americans, the hunters were required to use harpoons, but many used guns, and by 1897 they were killing so many seals that the price of skins plunged. The waste was terrible: for every three animals they shot, two sank before they could be harvested. By 1902, only 200,000 northern fur seals remained. Forced to the bargaining table, in 1911 the U.S., Canada, Russia and Japan negotiated the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention, outlawing the open-water hunt in exchange for a percentage of a controlled hunt on the Pribilofs. It was the first international treaty dealing with the conservation of a species.
Not much remains of Victoria’s sealing era today, aside from the “steamboat Gothic” mansion at 507 Head Street, built in 1893 for Captain Victor Jacobsen. (The house, pictured right, is topped with a “widow’s walk” that his wife could pace, waiting for him to return from his nine months at sea.) The old schooners rotted away at anchor. The city’s last living sealer, Max Lohbrunner, lived until the 1960s aboard an old whaling ship, tied to the city garbage wharf; whenever City Hall tried to evict him, he would show up waving the 1911 treaty, claiming it entitled him to remain on the harbour. (After Lohbrunner died, a salvage company dynamited his ship. Its harpoon gun stands in the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, and the ship itself rests on the seabed, just offshore from the Canoe Club.)
Seal-killing didn’t end in 1911. Commercial hunters in B.C. wiped out 500,000 harbour seals and sea lions between 1879 and 1969, selling their skins for leather and their meat for pet food. The federal government also paid fishermen a bounty (up to $5 per snout) to kill thousands more, in the belief that seals were destroying the salmon fishery. During wartime, the Canadian government actually waged military operations against seals: in 1917, the fisheries department used explosives to blow up 300 seals on sandbars along the Fraser River, and in 1944, the Royal Canadian Air Force staged air raids on the Fraser, dropping fragmentation bombs and strafing seals with machine-gun fire.
After the commercial hunt ended in 1969, harbour seals began to rebound. Today they’re near their historic numbers in B.C. waters, of about 100,000 animals. Dr. Peter Olesiuk, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada biologist in Nanaimo, says only a few “nuisance” seals are killed these days, to keep them from interfering with fishing operations or endangered salmon runs. “Overall salmon’s a pretty small part of their diet, about four percent. But they’re opportunistic predators.”
North Coast politicians talked about reviving a commercial hunt as recently as 2003, but Olesiuk says there’s no point. “Harbour seals and sea lions are not a particularly valuable species compared to fur seals or harp seals,” he says. “There don't appear to be any viable markets.”
Every March, activists in Victoria and around the world protest against the seal hunt in Newfoundland. The old-fashioned brutality of clubbing harp seals certainly makes for shocking television, but perhaps our outrage is misplaced. While there are more harp seals in Newfoundland than ever, the northern fur seal’s population has dropped from 1.7 million in the 1970s to 1.2 million today, and it may be relisted as a threatened species. It turns out the Alaska seals are being killed by stray fishing gear and plastic garbage. We may be kinder than our ancestors, but we’re just as lethal.
UPDATE (April 30, 2009): I recently wrote a review of the new biography of Alex MacLean for the Times Colonist – and in the process, came across a bunch of YouTube videos that help illustrate our seal-hunting history.
The northern fur seal doesn’t come ashore in Victoria, so readers might wonder what they look like. There’s a cute video of a pup at the Vancouver Aquarium posted here, but I also love this one, of adults swimming through a kelp forest. They’re far more elegant than the bullet-shaped harbour seals that hang around our shores:
Henry Wood Elliott was an American painter and conservationist who lobbied for the protection of the northern fur seal a century ago. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has posted this biography, with lots of scenes of the Alaska seal rookeries:
Part two of the bio is here, and part three here.
Finally, here’s a trailer for a 2008 version of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, with Tim Roth as “Death” Larsen (i.e. Dan MacLean, the brother of Victoria sealing captain Alex MacLean), the sinister brother of “Wolf” Larsen: