Kenai Fjords
A Stern and Rock-Bound Coast: Historic Resource Study
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Chapter 6:

Sea Lion Harvesting

Rookeries of Steller's sea lions (Eumetopias jubata) inhabit several areas in and near the present park. Their primary habitat is the most exposed islands, and the area's two largest rookeries are the Chiswell Islands, at the southwestern entrance to Resurrection Bay, and the Barren Islands, near the southwestern tip of the Kenai Peninsula.

Sea lions, along with fur seals, elephant seals, and sea otters, were subjected to an enormous amount of commercial hunting pressure during the 19th century, and by 1905 a government fisheries expert noted that sea lions were "almost extinct." The Alaska Game Law of 1908, however, prohibited their "wanton destruction" and decreed that no one could legally kill more than one sea lion per year. [106] The new law brought hardship to certain Alaska Natives (such as those at Akutan), who were deprived of "their only trade and occupation." The law was also looked upon with disfavor in Seward, which was beginning to acquire a fishing industry. Residents there fought the law because it protected sea lions which, as noted in a previous section, were popularly believed to be both numerous and possessed of gargantuan, salmon-based appetites. By 1916, Seward's Chamber of Commerce had a Sea Lion Committee that sent a letter to both Alaska Delegate James Wickersham and Secretary of Agriculture David F. Houston. In that letter, it "was set forth that the seals [sic] at the entrance of Resurrection Bay were a menace to the fishing industry and asking that the game laws be amended to the extent that these animals could be destroyed or dispersed." [107]

Steller sea lions
Steller sea lions were occasionally harvested along the Kenai coast because of their purported salmon-based diet. M. Woodbridge Williams/NPS photo, in Alaska Regional Profiles, Southcentral Region, July, 1974, 154.

Despite the Federal government's prohibitions, local residents harvested sea lions from time to time. Shortly after Pete Sather began living on Nuka Island, he started feeding sea lions (as well as seals) to his foxes. In regards to the sea lions' feeding habits, the opinions of his wife, Josephine, were fairly typical of Alaska fishers;

On his frequent trips to Seward in the spring, Pete often brings home a sea lion.... And what a lot of fish they do eat! We have found as much as seven salmon in the stomach of one sea lion.... In spite of their large numbers and their proximity to us, sea lions are hard to get. They sink if shot in the water [and] the jagged cliffs ... make landing [them] in a skiff exceedingly hazardous.... Sea-lion killing is against the law, except when they interfere with commercial fishing. We can hardly understand why.... Halibut fishermen often have to leave good fishing grounds because they cannot get a whole fish to their boats. [108]

During World War II, the area's sea lions faced a new danger: bored soldiers. Military men, as noted in Chapter 8, were stationed on Outer Island, Rugged Island, at Caines Head, and elsewhere in the immediate area. As Josephine Sather explained it,

During the war, the service men stationed in Alaska found that sea lions made excellent practice targets. All they had to do was bring the boat up close to a rookery, then make believe they were fighting Japs. Since the fellows had plenty of ammunition at their disposal, hundreds of sea lions became feed for the fishes. Hundreds of others drifted up onto the beaches, where they made feed for birds, coyotes, and bears.

In retrospect, Alaska residents had the same attitude toward sea lions as it had toward harbor seals–that they were a costly nuisance because they were believed to eat salmon. Based on those attitudes, Congress passed the Act of June 16, 1934 that relaxed most former prohibitions on sea lion harvests, and in 1949 the Interior Secretary allowed them to be killed anywhere in Alaska except on Bogoslof Island, near Unalaska. [109] If the 1908 prohibition on excessive sea lion hunting had not been imposed, Alaska legislators may well have placed a bounty on sea lions as well as harbor seals. Given that prohibition, no such bounty was ever enacted.

When Alaska became a state, it became free to regulate the take of sea lions and other marine mammals, and the federally-mandated stricture against hunting them no longer applied. They were free to impose a bounty, too; the era of new bounties, however, was long past. State officials allowed sea lion hunting throughout the state; the taking of sea lions for commercial purposes, however, was permitted only under the terms of a permit issued by the Commissioner of Fish and Game. That permit specified which areas would be open to sea lion harvesting. The Barren Islands, southwest of the Kenai Peninsula coastline, were included as a commercial harvesting area. [110]

Under that system, a recorded total of 45,808 sea lion pups were harvested from Alaskan rookeries from 1959 through 1972. The same trend which created an increased harbor seal take carried over to sea lions as well; sea lion pups were harvested for their pelts, and there was an experimental harvest of adults for meat. (Commercial interests hoped to sell meat and liver as pet food or to fur farms, and Japanese interests hoped to find protein for human consumption. High costs, however, precluded further development of the resource.) Hunting locations were highly localized; 31,070 of those sea lions–more than two-thirds of the total–came from either Marmot Island, near Afognak Island, or from Sugarloaf Island, in the Barren Islands. Much of the remainder came from either Akutan or Ugamak islands, both of which are located just east of Unalaska in the Aleutian Islands. [111]

Along the Kenai Peninsula coast, a commercial take has never been allowed within the park boundaries; outside the park, as noted above, commercial permits have been issued for the Barren Islands, but not for the Chiswell Islands. Quite a few local residents attempted to harvest sea lions in park waters, particularly during the mid-1960s when pelt prices were high; they all quickly learned, however, that the proposition was uneconomical and they abandoned the practice. [112]

The harvest of sea lions, like that of hair seals, was drastically reduced when the Marine Mammals Protection Act was passed in late 1972. Since then, few if any sea lions have been harvested in park waters. The only group legally allowed to harvest them has been Alaska Natives. Local Native groups, however, avoid them; a series of three annually-administered subsistence harvest surveys, conducted during the early 1990s, revealed that Seward's Native population neither harvested nor consumed sea lion. [113]

Illustration by Rockwell Kent from Wilderness, A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska, 1920. The Rockwell Kent Legacies.

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Last Updated: 26-Oct-2002