[The North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty] furnishes an illustration of the feasibility of securing a general international game law for the protection of other mammals of the sea, the preservation of which is of importance to all the nations of the world. President William Taft, State of the Union Address (1911) 1
Chapter 1 provided the motivation for the book. This chapter gives a glimpse of the book's essential lessons, as revealed by the telling of a very special story. 2
The story concerns the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus; see Figure 2.1), an animal that fills a special ecological niche, that has a distinctive morphology, that exhibits a remarkable social behavior—and that was hunted nearly to extinction about a century ago. The fur seal was saved by an ingenious treaty, the North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty of 1911, and this chapter explains how and why this treaty succeeded. As noted before, “success” is impossible to measure precisely. However, the fur seal case study comes as close to offering a counterfactual yardstick for success as we are ever likely to find.
Little is known about the early history of sealing, though Aleuts and other native peoples of the region probably hunted fur seals in the North Pacific and Bering Sea for centuries before Europeans began killing them for profit in the early 1700s, soon after Russia settled its eastern frontier. The seal's luxurious pelt, containing over 350,000 hairs per square inch, was a highly valued commodity, and a commercial market for the skins quickly developed.
At first, the seals were harvested at sea, close to the Siberian coast. But in 1741, the Russian explorer Vitus Bering discovered and was shipwrecked on the Commander Islands, where, by chance, he found one of the seal's main breeding grounds. Though Bering died near to where his ship foundered, on an island later named after him, other members of his expedition survived and returned to Siberia the next year. They