“To request seal: Call the Tribal Government the day before the scheduled harvest from which you want seal. Requests for seal will be limited to a maximum of 5 seals per individual per harvest. The Tribal Government insists that the physically able and non-elderly join in the volunteer harvest, at the very least to get their requested seal. Only requests from Elders will be filled and delivered by the volunteers of the harvest. Please note that the Tribal Government does not ship seal meat off island. Non-tribal members are welcome to observe the harvest. Harvest observation permits can be obtained from the Tribal Government Office during normal business hours. Please obtain a permit the day before the scheduled harvest.”
I’d been hearing these announcements on the radio for a couple of weeks, along with the dates of the subsistence harvests, and had seen the path of crushed vegetation near the Zapadni Rookery where seals had been herded. I was curious to see what it was all about, but had some trepidation regarding actually watching the process. In spite of eating wild game and farm-raised meat now and then, I’d never hunted or slaughtered a mammal. In fact, other than fish, a couple of chickens, mosquitoes, flies, and so on, I’d never seen a human being kill an animal. I wasn’t sure how I would react.
Nature is bloody, though, and I’ve been a witness. Already this summer I’d seen dead Arctic foxes and seabirds; a living fur seal with half of his face torn off; another seal with terrible puncture wounds, probably from an orca; and a violent mating between a huge beachmaster male fur seal and a female who was just a fraction of his weight.
Non-breeding fur seals can be playful and calm; in the rookery, it’s another matter. There’s a lot of shoving and pushing, gesturing and yelling. Males bite and wound other males when they compete for mates, males and females bite while they’re mating, females bite each other even in the midst of giving birth, females bite pups who try to nurse from the wrong mother. Pups get crushed to death underneath the big males. The rookery is filled with sounds of roaring, growling, and territorial coughing. I’d spent a fair amount of time watching the seals from the island viewing blinds, and felt I was starting to grasp at least a little bit about what seal rookery life is like.
I had less of a sense of the relationship between the seals and the islanders, though. The subsistence seal harvest is an essential cultural aspect of life on St. Paul Island. In order to better understand this place and its people, I needed to see how it was done.
I went to the Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO), and got my “Permit to Observe the Subsistence Fur Seal Harvest.” The woman who works at the front desk read it out loud to me before I signed it, just to make sure I understood all the rules. No photos or recording equipment. Do what the Harvest Foreman says. Don’t interfere, physically or verbally, with the harvesters. If written documentation is produced, provide a copy of it to the Aleut Community of St. Paul before publishing. Observe from the parking area.
I signed my name on the line.
Friday, July 28: I take my copy of the permit and drive to the ECO parking lot by 8:15 am. People are sitting in their trucks, but also standing around in the parking lot in little groups, drinking coffee, chatting, smoking cigarettes. Kids play tag, running around all the vehicles. The wardrobe is Alaska work-casual: Xtratufs and Muck Boots, jeans, and black and navy-blue hoodies. The hoodies say “CBSFA” (Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association) and “Unangan” on the back. I sit in my truck, listening to KUHB radio. “Shine On” by Humble Pie comes on, and I can hear it playing in a couple of the other cars. After a solid month of rain and fog, it seems like a good way to start the day. Miraculously, it’s not raining.
At 8:41, the convoy starts pulling out. Twelve pickups, two stake trucks, and two or three cars make their way out of town. The seal harvests rotate among the various rookeries, and I don’t know which one we’ll be visiting today. I’m hoping it won’t be Lukanin. I’ve been driving by there lately, parking and watching the young males wrestle and spar. The dune grasses are mashed down and have turned golden brown, so it looks like a bed of fresh straw. Beach sunflowers are in bloom, and their fragrance floats in the window while I watch the seals. Just two nights ago, I realized that not all the seals were bachelors. A male and female were having a tender moment. They both seemed young, and were almost evenly matched in size. Maybe because of the beach straw, maybe because it was obviously love, true love, I thought of them as Farm Boy and Buttercup.
We drive out of town and don’t turn right at the gas station, so I think “Oh, good it’s not Lukanin.” But my heart sinks when the line of vehicles does take the next right, on the other end of Black Diamond Hill Road. It will be Lukanin, after all. I say a prayer for Farm Boy. He might be about the right size for harvest. I send him a telepathic message: “Swim away, little buddy! Get outta here!”
The chain of vehicles stops for a while, lined up on Black Diamond Hill Road. “Long as I Can See the Light,” a Joe Cocker cover of a CCR tune, plays on the radio. I feel excited, a little euphoric, and nervous. I’m not sure what’s happening, since there’s a hill blocking my view. As a complete outsider, no one is telling me how this works. I just have to go with the flow. It doesn’t take long before we all start up again. We drive to the end of the road, pass the now-deserted beach with its empty bed of straw, and go uphill to the harvest field. There are the seals! They’ve already been herded into a tight knot. I missed it somehow. Three men stand, equally spaced apart on the far side of the herd, keeping the seals gathered together. We park the cars in one long row, on the near side of the seals, forming a wall of sorts. I park way down at the very end, away from the action.
The seals are snorting, as they usually do, their steamy breath floating away on the cool morning air. They don’t seem especially alarmed or stressed out. I count at least forty-five, but there are probably a lot more. I can see the tops of the heads of the ones who are standing upright, but the tall tundra grasses hide many others who are in more prone positions. Only the young males get harvested. I wonder if Farm Boy is among the herd. At least he found love. Maybe started a pup with Buttercup.
I’m parked far enough away to be able to catch bits of conversation, but not all the details. It’s someone’s birthday, and I think I hear, “It wouldn’t be your birthday without flipper!” Also: “She didn’t want throat, she wanted intestines.” And, “Your mom’s doing seal?” And, “Do you want a liver?”
Around 9:10 am, everyone gets geared up, pulling on Grundéns jackets and bibs. A few people wear rubber gloves. There is laughter and joking. It feels a bit like a tailgate party. Five young, strong, men pick up long sticks. The sticks look like baseball bats, only they’re about five feet long. Pale blue cowbells, which can be slipped over the end of the stick, rest about halfway down the length. A turn of the wrists and the bells clank. The men approach the seal herd.
“Cut them out.” Using the long sticks, the men (like cowboys or sheepdogs) separate a few seals from the herd. This small subgroup, or pod, of seals is pushed toward the humans, while the main bunch of seals is still in the original herd. The guys clank their cowbells and yell, “Hubba! Hubba! Hubba!”
“Incoming,” they shout. “Three, we need three.”
“Too big. No. This one! This one!” The harvesters select the seals who are the right size and age.
The sticks, transformed into clubs now, thump down. Once, twice, done. Once, twice, done. And again: once, twice, done.
The rest of the pod is released, urged back toward the beach, with shouts of, “Go home!” The seals oblige, and escape through the tundra vegetation, headed downhill. I imagine them leaping into the sea, and away. Home.
A second pod of seals is cut away from the herd. The managers from the ECO office measure each harvested seal, shouting out numbers: 92, 107, 118, 101, 122, 128.
The people keep count, collectively, yelling out how many seals have been killed so far: 2, 3, 9, 11.
I see the glint of light on a curved blade, a knife being sharpened on a whetstone.
By 9:32 they are butchering and skinning, right there on the tundra grass, among the wild celery, under the open sky. Two women pull the skins off the seal carcasses. They have a simple handle contraption that’s somehow attached to one end of the skin, and they work together, quickly pulling on the handles and walking away from the seal in tandem. The skins come off neatly, all in one piece.
A girl, maybe ten years old, has a long white fabric bag, held inside-out on her arm. She is bagging up the meat. Soon, people begin carrying these fine-mesh fabric bags back to the open beds of their pickup trucks. The bags, tied closed at the top, rest on clean, flattened cardboard boxes. Roasts and chops, shoulders. I missed a few of the details of this transformation from living animal to meat, even though it happened right there in front of me. From my vantage point I couldn’t see over the tall grass.
Suddenly, what’s left of the main seal herd starts to make a break for it, running toward the butchering area. All the people spring to action, adults shooing their kids back away from the front line. “Hold the line! Hold the line!” says the foreman. “Guys, sit down over there. If they come to you stand up, but otherwise stay down.” This to the young men who are holding the far side of the seal herd in place. These adult fur seals, even though they are not huge like the beachmasters, could do serious damage to a person, and could probably kill a child.
There are still some seals to be killed. “One more?”
“One in there – one, only one!”
“Hold ‘em, let ‘em rest.”
“Got an entangled one, get the noose.”
A man brings a long pole with a loop of rope fixed to the end. The entangled seal is captured, held down by the other men with their long sticks, while the noose man holds the seal’s head immobile. People cut away the fishing gear that’s wrapped around the seal’s body. But this seal has been wounded by the gear, which is embedded in his skin.
“It’s just a loss. Can’t let him fuckin’ suffer like that. Take him out?” Even from this distance, I can hear the disgust in this man’s voice, at the waste, the unnecessary pain for the seal. It’s decided, and the entangled seal is dispatched. Once, twice, done.
“See, that’s why you don’t litter,” a mom says to her kid. The kid must have laughed because the mom says, “It’s not a joke! I’m serious.”
“We need eleven more.”
The guys clank their cowbells and yell “Hubba! Hubba! Hubba!” again.
“Too big. Go home! This one!”
“Ring around the collar!” There’s another entangled seal. The noose man comes again and captures him. The men hold the seal down with their clubs, and they successfully cut away the debris from his neck. This time it works, the seal has not been injured by the entanglement, and they tell the seal to go home. He lollops down the hill to the beach, free.
By 10:00 am the killing is done, and just the butchering is left. People carry bags of meat to their trucks. Twenty-four or twenty-five seals have been harvested. I decide I’ve seen enough. It’s time to go home.
I’m surprised by how light-hearted I feel. It’s like I’ve been to a church social or a barn raising. The people have meat, which they will share with each other. They’ll have food for the winter ahead. Survival, while never definite, is more likely. It’s similar to the way I feel after a successful day of halibut fishing, when all the little shrink-wrapped packages of fish go into the freezer.
This thing I just witnessed… it was good. The harvest was humane, and respectful. There was no violence or cruelty in it. There was no feedlot, no life in captivity, no Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, no cesspool. The harvest ground was not an abattoir, with sounds of machinery, drains in the floor, antiseptic chemicals, florescent lights, rats in the shadows. Here, there was no shit, no dirt, not even much smell, not even much blood. What blood there is soaks into the green tundra and feeds the volcanic soil. The day after the harvest there will not be a scrap left in the killing field, just a few dark patches on the flattened vegetation.
These seals lived a free-swimming, wild life. They could choose their battles, who to mate with, where to hunt, and when to travel. They could spend their time ashore biting, fighting, wrestling, and lounging on beaches.
It’s not my place to judge, nor do I intend to idealize someone else’s way of life. But I do know for certain a couple of things:
I’d rather be a fur seal destined for the St. Paul Island harvest, than a steer for McDonald’s, or a chicken for Tyson.
And I’d rather eat a fur seal roast than a drive-thru burger, or processed factory-meat from the grocery store.
Buttercup probably thinks Farm Boy is dead. But I’m holding out hope that, someday, they will be reunited.
POSTSCRIPT: This story has been approved for publication by the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. See below for more information.
August 23, 2017
Thank you for sending a copy of your story. Paul, Aaron and I do not see any problems with you posting your story as is, but wanted to provide you with some information to help you understand the harvest better- you can use this information however you would like.
The seals in the grass above the beach near the road were not part of the roundup so Farm Boy and Buttercup survived. We only harvest from the hill area above the rocks.
That was the first harvest we tried using cowbells as noisemakers to help with pod cutting. We found out that they agitated the seals too much so we discontinued using them. They were only used for 2 of the harvests.
The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island co-manages the harvest with NMFS. ECO’s primary role is to ensure subsistence activities are conducted in a humane and non-wasteful manner and in accordance with statutory, regulatory and non-regulatory requirements. The subsistence take of fur seal is also the most regulated of all the marine mammal species in AK, even more than the endangered/threatened Steller sea lion.
Here is a link for the Federal regulations governing the subsistence take of fur seals in the Pribs (click “next” to scroll through the regulations):
Co-Director, Ecosystem Conservation Office
Pribilof Islands Aleut Community of St. Paul Island
Tribal Government of St. Paul Island