Sealing in 1885

By Larry Clinton

Many species of marine mammals were hunted almost to extinction in the 19th century.  Here are annotated excerpts from a Sausalito News article of 1885, which describes the sealing activities that decimated local populations. Warning: descriptions of the hunting techniques may be disturbing to some readers:

Seal skinning in the 1880s Courtesy photo

Seal skinning in the 1880s
Courtesy photo

Among the trades which have grown to considerable importance within the past few years is that of sealing and a short account of these animals and the manner of hunting them may be of interest to our readers. The following article is furnished us by a gentleman who has much experience in seal hunting: Both fin and hair seals are numerous along the Pacific Coast, and many vessels are now employed in the sealing business, going as far south as the Galapagos Islands and north to the Bering Sea. Fur seals are the most valuable of all the seal tribe proper, a good skin generally bringing about $12 in its undressed state.

THE ALA EA COMMERCIAL COMPANY controls this branch of the trade, as the animals are so numerous on their islands that it is almost impossible for private individuals to compete with them. The chief hunting grounds of the Company are St. George, St. Paul and Copper Islands [in the Bering Sea]. Here the seals assemble in thousands and when a sufficient number is collected, they are approached by bands of natives who, getting between them and the water, drive the unfortunate creatures some distance up the country where they are slaughtered with clubs at their captors’ pleasure. In this manner are killed millions of seals annually, the steamer St. Paul alone bringing down 270,00 skins last season. When a private vessel engages in sealing, the method is to shoot the seal when in the water asleep and trust to his floating when killed, but very few are taken in this way as compared with the Company’s method. There is little or no blubber on these seals so the skin is all that the fur seal is killed for. It is a noteworthy fact that all the skins must be sent to London to be dressed and made into the beautiful saques [infants’ jackets] etc. the ladies so much admire. The process of preparing the fur is a well-guarded secret of which only the proprietors of the business have full knowledge.

HAIR SEALS

The different species of the hair seal [seals with coarse hair rather than fur, such as harbor seals] are sought chiefly for their blubber which is boiled down into oil immediately after being detached from the body of the animal, but of late years, the skins have been converted into leather and consequently are now saved instead of being thrown away as formerly.

Many companies are engaged in this business, and the rookeries, as they are termed, being very numerous immense numbers of the animals have been killed. Among the favorite and best hunting grounds are Port Orford, Point New Year, Carmel Bay, Santa Barbara Island, Natividad Island and Bonita Islands. These places are crowded with sea lion, black and leopard seals all the year round. Last year one vessel, the Laura, hunted on the north island of the Farallones and made a good harvest, but the Government refused to allow it to be continued and no vessel went there this year.

SEA LIONS

Are the most profitable of the species as they are considerably larger than any other, an average size bull measuring about twenty [actually, more like eleven] feet from nose to tail. They yield from 13 to 20 gallons of oil which brings about 50 cents a gallon and the skin will weigh about 150 pounds worth 5 cents a pound; so, taken all in all, they are about as profitable as the fur seal.

Another branch of the business is

SEA OTTER HUNTING

 

The skins of these animals are extremely valuable, a common skin bringing as high as $100, while a silver-tipped otter will bring sometimes as high as $700. They are scarce as compared with

seals but some vessels engage in hunting them exclusively as a few skins bring in such good returns. [Soon, otters were considered extinct in California waters until a small family were discovered in the 1930s].

Last winter a schooner went down to Mexico for the Smithsonian Institute to obtain the skins and skeletons of

SEA ELEPHANTS

Another variety of seal, which are even larger than sea lions, often measuring 35 and 40 feet in length [more like [thirteen feet, actually] and yielding sometimes as much as 90 gallons of oil. About forty of these animals were killed and went east to be mounted. Of all the varieties of seals the leopard seals are generally the most vicious, though in the breeding season with her young about her, a female sea lion is very savage. Some years ago, when some men were employed to capture some of these animals alive for Woodward's Garden, a large cow bit a man's leg clean off at the hip, causing his death shortly after. As a general thing however, anybody can avoid danger as the animals are very awkward on land though they swim faster than any fish when in the water.

Throughout the 1900s, safeguards were gradually put in place for most of these animals, culminating in the US Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.  That legislation made it illegal to harm, harass or approach any marine mammal, and established a stranding network of organizations to provide rescue and rehabilitation efforts throughout the country.  Some populations have rebounded, but fur seals, sea otters and a few other species are still considered threatened, depleted, or endangered.  In Central and Northern California, The Marine Mammal Center has rescued and treated more than 21,000 marine mammals since it was founded in 1975.  If you see a sick or injured marine mammal within Mendocino County and San Luis Obispo county, please call 415-289-SEAL. For more information, visit www.MarineMammalCenter.org.