Books

Book review: The story of the Pribilof Island seals and Henry Wood Elliott is brought to life

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“Roar of the Sea: Treachery, Obsession, and Alaska’s Most Valuable Wildlife”

By Deb Vanasse. West Margin Press, 2022. 227 pages. $17.99.

Alaskans likely know in general terms about northern fur seals, their breeding grounds on the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George, and the Unangax people who were brought to the islands to kill seals for commercial interests and whose descendants remain there today. They may know about the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty that prevented the seals’ extinction, and they may even remember that in 1983 commercial take of the seals ended altogether.

Now comes a fascinating, full history of the fur seal story, pitting artist and advocate Henry Wood Elliott against the most famous of the seal pirates, a man named Alex MacLean, and a whole host of ill-informed and corrupt business and political titans. Deb Vanasse, a former Alaskan who now lives in Oregon and is the author of many previous books — including “Wealth Woman,” about the Klondike gold rush — has done extensive research to illuminate the historical characters, the difficulties of reaching an international agreement to protect wildlife, and the significance of that treaty today.

The “obsession” in the book’s title belongs to Elliott, a man with little formal education but a passion for art and natural history. As a boy he caught the attention of the first curator of the Smithsonian Museum and became a very capable member of his team. He later traveled west and, through his art, helped with the creation of Yellowstone National Park. In 1872, when he was just 26, he was sent to the Pribilof Islands to study the seals for the Smithsonian. Little was known about the numbers or behavior of the seals, although the United States was earning revenues from the “harvests” managed by the lease-holding Alaska Commercial Co. He ended up marrying a Unangan woman and traveling back and forth to the Pribilofs for the next 15 years as a seal expert, sometimes for the government and sometimes for the ACC. His conflicting associations soon became a problem.

In 1872, Elliott estimated the population of Pribilof seals to be 4.7 million. He believed then that such a population could be maintained in perpetuity if the yearly take was properly managed.

Meanwhile, pelagic, or at sea, sealing was indiscriminately killing large numbers of seals as they migrated to and from the islands. Outlaws including the notorious Alex MacLean, the real-life inspiration for Jack London’s “The Sea-Wolf,” filled their ship holds with pelts and evaded the U.S. revenue cutters. Seal hunters themselves estimated that for every seal they recovered at least four others sank, and the loss may have been considerably higher.

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Elliott soon became alarmed at the precipitous drop in seals on the islands and realized that both leaseholders and government representatives were misrepresenting facts. The problem wasn’t only the pelagic sealing — which needed to be stopped — but false records and reports and questionable science. In 1890 he wrote a report for the U.S. government, a report that recommended multination moratoriums on both land and sea sealing. The report was suppressed and, when Elliott learned that secret deals had been made, he released the report himself — as Vanasse puts it, “becoming one of the nation’s earliest whistleblowers for an environmental cause.”

Elliott, as an artist, also put his skills to work by illustrating scenes from the islands and thus commanding the public’s attention. He exhibited his work, published cartoons and sold paintings to support his family while crusading for the seals’ cause.

By 1909 Elliott estimated that the seal population was down to 38,000. President Teddy Roosevelt, among others, seemed to have accepted their extinction. In 1906 the president had argued that, if it looked like there was no hope to ending seal piracy, Congress should pass a law to authorize the killing of every last Pribilof seal — and thus end forever the trouble of arguing over the issue.

Fortunately, Elliott’s perseverance, the good work of hunter-conservationist William Hornaday, public sentiment roused by an organization called the Camp Fire Club and key government leaders led, eventually, to the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty signed by the United States, Canada, Russia, Great Britain and Japan in 1911. Vanasse says about this, “It was a precedent-setting agreement, the first that acknowledged that the world’s wildlife could and should be protected by nations working together.” Its principles of international cooperation would prepare the way for the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty and later agreements regarding the trade of engendered species, biodiversity and global warming.

In an epilogue, Vanasse describes the recovery of the Pribilof seal population and the privations of the Unangax people who were left in dire conditions during the moratorium. After the five-year moratorium, the U.S. government managed the Pribilof “harvest” at a sustainable level, and the commercial take ended altogether in 1983. Control returned to the Unangax for their subsistence needs, and the government built boat harbors on both islands to encourage commercial fishing as an alternative economy.

Today, fur seal numbers are again in sharp decline, and the problem is not as simple as humans intentionally killing them. The causes are complex but relate to too little of the right kind of food available to the seals, itself likely related to both commercial fishing and climate change.

Vanasse ends with this plea: “Now more than ever, we need advocates who fervently and relentlessly confront human-caused threats to the world’s wildlife, activists who are determined to stand against those who would pirate the earth’s wild creatures for their own gain.” Her new book has given us a tremendous example of how close we came to losing one large and significant species and how science, art, and committed cooperation helped avert that tragedy.

“Roar of the Sea: Treachery, Obsession, and Alaska’s Most Valuable Wildlife,”  by Deb Vanasse

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."

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