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THE BERING SEA CONTROVERSY

THE question involved in what is called the Bering Sea controversy may be stated in few words. The Alaskan fur-seal fishery is the most important in the world. It was a material element in the value of that province when purchased by the United States from Russia, at a heavy cost, and one of the principal inducements upon which the purchase was made. Since Alaska became the property of the United States, this fishery has afforded a very considerable revenue to the government by the lease of its privilege, has engaged a large amount of American capital, and the industry of many American people. The product is an important article of commerce and of manufacture, the loss of which would not be easily supplied. The seal is amphibious. It is not a denizen of the sea alone, still less a “wanderer of the sea,” but requires both land and water for its existence, and especially for its propagation. It has a fixed habitation on the Alaskan shore, from which it never long departs, and to which it constantly returns. It belongs, therefore, to the territory on which it makes its home, and where it breeds, and gives rise there to a business and a revenue, as much entitled to the protection of the government as the larger commerce of the port of New York. It is the habit of this colony of seals to cross through the sea, during breeding time, to the Pribyloff Islands, which form a part of Alaska, where their young are produced and reared. More sagacious and peculiar in their habits than most animals, and almost human in some of their instincts, this process of seclusion has become essential to successful propagation. It must be tolerated and protected, or propagation will cease. In making the passage, the seals necessarily cross a portion of the Bering Sea which is more than three miles outside of either shore, and is therefore beyond the line usually regarded as the limit of national jurisdiction on the borders of the ocean. It has been the custom for several years past for certain Canadian vessels fitted out for the purpose to intercept the seals on this passage while outside of the three-mile line, and to shoot them in the water. Many of the animals thus destroyed sink and are lost. Those that are saved are considerably diminished in value by their condition. Still, there is a certain profit in the business, inhuman and wasteful as it is. But the necessary result of it, if continued, will be the extermination of the seals in Alaska within a very short time, the destruction of the interests and industries dependent upon them, and in a large measure the withdrawal of the fur-seal skin from commerce and from use. The certainty of this result is proved by what has already taken place. The Secretary of State in his last (published) communication to the British government on this subject, makes the following statement: “From 1870 to 1890, the seal fisheries, carefully guarded and preserved, yielded 100,000 skins each year. The Canadian intrusions began in 1886, and so great

has been the damage resulting from their destruction of seal life in the open sea surrounding the Pribyloff Islands, that in 1890 the government of the United States limited the Alaska Company to 60,000 skins, but the company was able to secure only 21,000 seals."

The simple question presented is whether the United States government has a right to protect its property and the business of its people from this wanton and barbarous destruction by foreigners, which it has made criminal by act of Congress; or whether the fact that it takes place upon waters that are claimed to be a part of the open sea affords an immunity to the parties engaged in it which the government is bound to respect. To the ordinary mind this question would not appear to be attended with much difficulty.

During the administration of President Cleveland, and as soon as these depredations were made known, our government applied to that of Great Britain, setting forth the facts, and proposing that a convention should be entered into between the two nations, in which Russia should be invited to join, limiting the season of the year in which seals might be taken, and prescribing a close time covering the period of breeding, within which they should not be molested: the provisions of the convention to be carried into effect by suitable legislation in the three countries, and under the concurrent authority of their governments. This proposal was not met on the part of the British government by any assertion of the right of the Canadians to destroy the seal in the manner complained of, or by any vindication of the propriety of that business. The expediency of the convention was at once conceded, and the concurrence of Great Britain promised; and the United States government was requested to prepare and furnish a draft of such regulations as were deemed necessary to accomplish the object. Such a draft was soon after transmitted, and no question ever arose between the governments in respect to its details. The Russian government, whose concurrence in the convention was invited through its ambassador in London, at once agreed to join in it, and expressed its desire that the agreement should be consummated as soon as possible. It was supposed on the part of the American government that the whole matter was satisfactorily arranged, and only awaited the execution of the formal agreement, and the passage of the proper legislation by Parliament and by Congress. But after a considerable delay it transpired that an unexpected obstacle had arisen. It came to be understood that Canada, whose people were carrying on the business in question, declined to assent to the establishment of the proposed restrictions upon it. Having no interest whatever in the preservation of the seal, nor in the property to which it gave value, they preferred to make such profit as they could out of its extermination. And this, after some time spent in what was no doubt a sincere effort on the part of the British government to overcome the objections of Canada, brought the attempt at a convention virtually to an end. These facts are taken from the published despatches of the American Minister at London to his government, without attempting to state anything not already laid before the public.

The laws of all civilized nations, based upon the ordinary dictates of humanity as well as upon the requirements of self-interest, accord to all wild animals beneficial to mankind and not noxious or mischievous, protection from destruction during the necessary periods of gestation and of rearing their young. Under the provisions of such game laws as everywhere prevail, a man may not slay during that time, even upon his own land, any of those denizens of forest, field, or stream which the Creator has placed there for the benefit or sustenance of man. The woodcock and the partridge minister rather to sport than to profit, yet they are protected in the breeding season in all countries, and preserved from extermination. Nowhere are such salutary laws more rigid in their enactments, more thoroughly enforced, or more universally respected than in Great Britain. It would be difficult to exaggerate the barbarity or the wastefulness of the slaughter of wild creatures when heavy with young, so harmless, so interesting, and so useful as these, by the destruction of two lives for half the proper value of one, and that one saved only half the time. If the law of humanity does not terminate with humanity, and can be said to extend to those lower orders of creation that minister in their humble way to human enjoyment, surely such a practice as this can find no excuse or palliation. The repression of it ought not to be the subject of a moment's debate between Christian nations, if it requires their mutual action. But the case does not rest principally upon sentimental or humanitarian considerations. These animals, as has been pointed out, are a large and valuable property, an established and proper source of public and private revenue and of useful industry, all soon to perish unless the protection which humanity demands can be extended to them. Why should they not receive it?

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