Bering Sea Dispute

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The Bering Sea Dispute involved a late nineteenth-century controversy between the United States on one side and Great Britain and Canada on the other side over the international status of the Bering Sea. The dispute was generated over the U.S. assertion that it controlled the Bering Sea and all seal hunting off the coast of Alaska. The dispute, which led to the seizure of a number of Canadian ships by the United States, was finally resolved by an international arbitration in 1893.

The Bering Sea is the northernmost part of the Pacific Ocean. After the United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867, it assumed the right of control over the Bering Sea that had been held by Russia. The dispute arose after the Alaska Commercial Company, a U.S. business that had a monopoly on killing seals for their furs, found that Canadian hunters were killing seals as they swam through the ocean each spring toward their summer homes in the Pribilof Islands. The Pribilof Islands were part of the U.S. Alaskan territories. Fearing that the herds would be killed off by pelagic (open-sea) sealing, the U.S. government seized several Canadian sealing vessels in 1886 and instituted condemnation proceedings in an Alaskan court. The proceeds were given to the Alaskan Commercial Company as compensation.

These actions outraged the Canadian and British governments, who disputed the U.S. claim that it controlled not just the three-miles of sea bordering the Pribilof Islands but the entire Bering Sea. After several years of tensions and additional vessel seizures, the three countries agreed to arbitration by an international tribunal in Paris. The tribunal issued its decision in 1893. It rejected the U.S. claim of total control of the Bering Sea and awarded the Canadian owners of the seized ships $473,000 in damages. The tribunal also imposed restrictions on pelagic sealing, but it failed to control the problem. In 1911 the United States, Great Britain, Russia, and Japan signed a treaty that prohibited pelagic sealing for a period of time and then placed limits on how many seals could be hunted. The agreement was an important step in seeking international consensus on environmental matters.

further readings

Gay, John Thomas. 1987 The American Fur Seal Controversy. New York: Peter Lang.

Mead, Walter Russell. 2002. Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World. New York: Routledge.


Boundaries; International Law.