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Historical sealskins from the Archipelago of the Recherche, Western Australia Ross Anderson

  • CSIRO - The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
Historical sealskins from the Archipelago of the Recherche, Western Australia
Ross Anderson
Department of Maritime Archaeology, Western Australian Museum and Archaeology, University of Western Australia, 47 Cliff
Street, FREMANTLE WA 6160 Western Australia
Oliver Berry
CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Private Mail Bag 5, WEMBLEY WA 6913 Western Australia
Isa Loo
Department of Materials Conservation, Western Australian Museum, 47 Cliff Street, FREMANTLE WA 6160 Western Australia
The Archipelago of the Recherche consists of 105 islands
and numerous uncharted reefs on the continental shelf
off Western Australia’s south coast (Fig. 1). The islands
provide habitat for breeding populations of New Zealand
fur seals (Arctocephalus australis forsteri) and Australian sea
lions (Neophoca cinerea) (Gales et al. 1994). Sealers visited
Western Australia’s south coast in search of sealskins
and seal oil from at least 1803 until the 1920s and, like
elsewhere, had a devastating impact on seal populations.
There is limited historical information on the nature
and extent of sealing activities in Western Australia and few
specific details on names of vessels, dates of sealing voyages
and the amount of skins or oil harvested. Archaeological
evidence for sealing in Australia is generally sparse and
archaeological material found at historically recorded
sealing site locations is often difficult to provenance
to sealing activities, especially if later whaling or urban
development activities have occurred in the same locale
(Townrow 1997: 10; Kostoglou & McCarthy 1991: xi).
Environmental historian Rhys Richards (2010: 3)
commented on our knowledge of the sealing industry
and the rate of recovery of seal populations throughout
the Southern Ocean that ‘there remains a need ... for
greater coordination between historical, zoological and
conservation studies; and more attention to separating
and covering one by one the separate seal species involved
location by location’. It may be added that archaeological
research also can offer additional, unique insights into
the past and present dynamics of harvested organisms,
particularly where historical records and biological data
are scarce (e.g. McNiven & Bedingfield 2008; Gifford-
Gonzalez et al. 2005; Hartnup et al. 2008; Drew et al. 2013).
Here, we describe research into a sealing site in the
Archipelago of the Recherche discovered with four
sealskins in situ, and the processes undertaken to identify
and conserve the skins. The discovery of the sealskins with
an associated archaeological assemblage in situ provides
a unique opportunity to study techniques used by sealers
in harvesting, processing and packing skins for market
in southern Western Australia.
There are three objectives to this paper:
1. To provide a historical summary of sealing activities
in the Archipelago of the Recherche;
2. To describe an analysis of archaeological material
found in a sealer’s cave including deoxyribonucleic
acid (DNA) sequence analysis of four processed
sealskins to identify their species of origin; and
3. To discuss the long-term conservation issues and
requirements for the sealskins.
Sealing and its impact on seal populations in Western
During the 19th century sealers in Australasian and
sub-Antarctic waters mainly hunted Australian fur seals
(Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus), New Zealand fur seals
(Arctocephalus australis forsteri), Australian sea lions
Bulletin of the Australasian Institute for Maritime Archaeology (2013), 37: 114–123
Figure 1. Map of Western Australia and Recherche
(Neophoca cinerea) (Fig. 2) and New Zealand sea lions
(Phocarctos hookeri) for their skins and oil. Seals were also
processed by boiling their blubber to extract their oil
for which there were eight grades of quality obtainable.
Seal oil was used for the same purposes as whale oil
(Jones 1991: 587–588). Fur seal skins were manufactured
to become fashionable clothing items in China and
Europe—‘Peking Wraps’ and ‘London Hats’ (Richards
2010:10–12). Australian sea lions were often described
as ‘hair’ seals in reference to their coarse fur. Hair seal
skins were less valuable but their leather was useful for
covering luggage trunks and furniture.
Between 1788 and 1833 over 6.2 million sealskins
were harvested from the Southern Ocean to be sold in
the Canton and London markets. The sealing industry
around southern Australia, New Zealand, and sub-
Antarctic Islands was an important driver of early maritime
exploration and colonisation in the region. From 1798
seal skins became the elusively sought ‘staple export’
that transformed Sydney from a colonial outpost to the
major port and mercantile centre in the South Seas (Ross
1987: 11). Sydney was the centre of the colonial sealing
industry, and many of the maritime discoveries in Bass
Strait, New Holland, New Zealand and the Southern
Ocean were made by Sydney-based sealers. The Southern
Ocean sealing industry lasted from 1798 through to the
mid-19th century, with sporadic hunting occurring up
until the late 1940s (Ling 2002: 1). The modus operandi
of sealers was to discover new sealing ground ‘bonanzas’,
and to indiscriminately kill as many males, females,
juveniles and pups as possible before moving on to their
next discovery.
A minimum of 1.3 million skins was harvested between
1792 and 1849 in Australasian and sub-Antarctic waters,
of which 96% were taken before 1830 (Ling in Richards
2010: 16–17). Harvest had devastating effects on seal
numbers. Current seal populations are estimated to be
about 10% of pre-harvest abundances and some species
show few signs of recovery (Ling 2002: 1). To understand
the impact of historical sealing on seal populations it is
necessary to understand the biology of seals, as well as
the history and archaeology of sealing activities in the
Southern Ocean.
Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) and New
Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus australis forsteri) are the
predominant pinniped species in the Archipelago of
the Recherche (Ling 1999: 326) (Fig. 3). The current
distribution of Australian sea lions ranges from the
Houtman Abrolhos off the mid-west coast of Western
Australia to The Pages east of Kangaroo Island, South
Australia, although the distribution is highly fragmented.
Prior to sealing their range extended to Bass Strait and
the Tasmanian mainland. A number of Australian sea
lion colonies are known to have disappeared from the
Perth and Albany regions as the result of harvest. Current
numbers are estimated to be just 11 200 animals among
67 breeding colonies, of which 30% of the population
is in Western Australia and 70% in South Australia.
Presently Western Australia’s total Australian sea lion
population is estimated to be around 3 000 animals with
between 1 750 and 2 210 animals on the south coast
(Campbell 2005: 30, 43; Gales et al. 1994). Australian sea
lions are characterised by long inter-breeding periods,
asynchronous reproduction among colonies, and high
levels of population structure driven by extreme female
natal philopatry (Campell et al. 2008). They are listed
as ‘Vulnerable’ under the Environment Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, and ‘Endangered’
on the International Union for the Conservation of
Nature (IUCN) Red List (IUCN 2010) because of their
small population sizes, slow rate of recovery and threat
of extinction as a result of bycatch from commercial
fishing activities (Viewed 27 June 2011, <http://www.
Figure 2. Australian sea lion colony at Daw Island, Eastern
Group, Archipelago of the Recherche (Photo: Ross
Anderson, WA Museum).
Figure 3. Past and present distribution of Australian sea lion
Neophoca cinerea in Australian waters. Unbroken solid
line depicts current known breeding range; broken
solid line depicts extent of seasonal stragglers,
broken line between South Australia, northern
Tasmania and Victoria depicts extent of former
range (from Ling 1999).
pl?taxon_id=22>; viewed 14 July 2013, <http://www.>).
The New Zealand fur seal (also called Antipodean
fur seal, Australasian fur seal, Black fur seal and South
Australian fur seal) is found in Western Australia, South
Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand and Sub-Antarctic
islands, with a total population estimated to be 200 000
animals. The New Zealand fur seal was hunted and killed
in unquantified numbers in Western Australia but their
present Australia-wide population is estimated to be 10%
of the stocks that existed prior to the 19th-century sealing
industry (Ling 1999: 326; viewed 18 April 2013, <http://>).
In 2000 there were an estimated 15 100 New Zealand
fur seals in Western Australia (Gales et al. 2000: 165).
In Australian waters New Zealand fur seals breed in
summer, with pups born annually between December
and January (Gales 2000: 166; Goldsworthy & Gales
2008). Sealers targeting New Zealand fur seals in
Australia generally operated during two sealing seasons:
December–January when breeding adults were killed,
and April to June when ‘post-moult yearlings were
taken in their prime, first adult-type pelage’ (Ling
1999: 327). In contrast to Australian sea lions, New
Zealand fur seal populations are recovering well from
19th century sealing and the species is expanding its
geographic range by establishing new breeding colonies
(Goldsworthy & Gales 2008).
In his study of sealskin cargoes exported from
Australia, New Zealand, the Bounty Islands,
Auckland Islands, Antipodes Islands, Campbell
Island and Macquarie Island between 1823 and
1949, Ling (1999: 338) identified 8 448 fur sealskins
harvested from Western Australia, consisting of a
mere 1% of the 1 366 880 skins harvested in total.
This small percentage from Western Australia of the
overall harvest explains its lack of visibility in the
historical record, and subsequent historical studies
of sealing that have focussed on the Bass Strait,
Kangaroo Island, New Zealand and sub-Antarctic
sealing grounds.
Sealing on the south coast of New Holland
Sealing and whaling occurred on the south coast of
Western Australia (known as New Holland) prior to
British colonisation of King George Sound in December
1826. The first confirmed report of sealing on the
south coast of New Holland was on 20 February 1803
when French explorers Sub-Lieutenant Ransonnet and
Captain Nicolas Baudin in the Géographe met Captain
Pendleton of the sealing brig Union, owned by the New
York firm Fanning & Co., in a sheltered bay just east of
King George Sound. Baudin subsequently named this
bay ‘Baie de Deux Peuples’ (Two Peoples Bay) (Pearson
1988: 2). Pendleton had arrived in King George Sound
after unsuccessfully searching for the Crozet Islands and
was heading eastwards in search of richer sealing grounds
along the New Holland coast.
In October 1826 another French explorer Captain
Dumont D’Urville visited King George Sound in his
ship Astrolabe. He encountered two boats with sealing
gangs left by the Sydney-based sealing vessel Hunter and
Hobart-based sealing vessel Governor Brisbane. The gangs
had been sealing, fishing and hunting on Breaksea
Island for seven months and included five Englishmen,
a Maori male, a ‘coloured American’ who claimed to be
originally from Canada and spoke ‘quite good French’, an
Aboriginal male from New South Wales, two Aboriginal
females from van Diemen’s Land, an Aboriginal male
and female both between eighteen and twenty years of
age from the New Holland mainland near Port Lincoln,
and an eight or nine year old Aboriginal girl taken from
the New Holland mainland opposite Middle Island
(Smith 2010: 59; D’Urville in Rosenman 1987: 31–34).
The makeup of the crews reflects the diversity of ethnic
groups participating in colonial sealing activities and the
involvement (whether forced, coerced or voluntary) of
Aboriginal people, including women and children.
Sealing was carried out by various methods including
ship-based gangs, boat-based gangs and by resident sealers.
Ship-based gangs involved ships cruising in an area as a
‘mother ship’, dropping off sealing gangs to quickly exploit
seal colonies, then picking up their gangs and moving on.
Figure 5. Bundles of sealskins in situ (Courtesy Esperance
Bay Historical Society).
Figure 4. Exterior of sealer’s cave (Photo: Ross Anderson,
WA Museum).
Boat-based sealing involved gangs of men being
dropped off on islands or the mainland for longer periods
of time, their ship departing to return at some later date
(often between months and years, or not at all) to pick up
the men and their harvest. The failure of ship’s masters
to recover their gangs was not unusual, as was the case
with the aforementioned Hunter and Governor Brisbane,
neither of which vessel returned to King George Sound
to pick up their gangs (Nicholson 1983: 105,109).
The third category of resident sealers applies to
individuals or gangs who set up semi-permanent, or
permanent, dwellings to eke out a subsistence lifestyle
based on the barter of seal, kangaroo and wallaby skins;
fresh meat; seal oil; garden produce and salt for goods
such as tobacco, flour and preserved pork; alcohol;
arms; and ammunition (Perth Gazette and Western
Australian Journal [PGWAJ] 8/10/1842: 3). In most
other respects they were self-sufficient provisioning
themselves with abundant wild game, fish, skins for
clothing and living in simple huts made of timber,
stone or canvas. Many were sealers with past experience
in Bass Strait, Van Diemen’s Land and Kangaroo
Island (PGWAJ 8/10/1842: 3) and can be thought of
as a western outreach of the ‘Straitsman’ culture that
existed throughout the Bass Strait islands. There were
a number of resident sealers living in the Archipelago
of the Recherche by the 1840s, as described in the
following newspaper reports:
The great rendezvous of the sealers was the Archipelago
of Islands to the eastward of Doubtful Island Bay, where
they chiefly subsisted on wild geese and seal’s flesh, and
occasionally made a run to King George’s Sound to purchase
flour and other necessities, and sell their seal skins (PGWAJ
8/10/1842: 3).
We have been informed that Middle Island, one of the
group called Recherche Archipelago, in the Great Southern
Bight, has been for some past the resort of a set of lawless
desperadoes, composed of runaway convicts, sealers, &c. If
what we hear be true, the most frightful scenes have been
enacted in this portion of our Western Australian possessions;
murder, robbery, and other crimes which disgrace humanity,
are common amongst the population (South Australian [SA]
1/2/1848: 2).
One of the sealers known to have lived on Middle
Island was ‘Black Jack Anderson’ who lived with his
gang and two Aboriginal wives for a period in the 1830s.
He was infamous for his supposed tendency to violence
and penchant for carrying a brace of pistols (PGWAJ
8/10/1842: 3).
Middle Island is the largest island in the Archipelago
of the Recherche and had resources including a salt lake
(Lake Hillier) from which evaporated salts were collected
and bagged, a sheltered anchorage from prevailing
south-west and southerly winds, and edible fauna such as
shearwaters, Cape Barren geese and tammar wallabies.
Fresh water could be collected from the gnamma holes
and runoff from the nearby granite rock outcrop or by
digging wells. A shore whaling station operated at Middle
Island from 1862 (Gibbs 1994: 86–87). The Middle Island
historic site consists of ten stone ruins and features
including a well and possible hearth or oven (Paterson
& Souter 2006: 20). There are also remains of tramway
infrastructure relating to the late 19th century salt industry
at Lake Hillier. The earliest known archaeological site
related to sealing in Western Australia is the shipwreck
of the brig Belinda (1824) at Middle Island, discovered
and excavated by the Western Australian Museum’s
Department of Maritime Archaeology (Henderson 1995).
There are very few references to sealing in the
Archipelago of the Recherche after 1850, though sporadic
sealing continued to be carried out by individuals or
small gangs into the 20th century to supplement settlers’
incomes, as part of a variety of seasonal activities on
the south coast including whaling, salt collecting and
The last documented commercial seal harvesting
in the Archipelago of the Recherche occurred in 1920
when ‘The Recherche Syndicate’ hired the fishing smack
Kia Ora to conduct a six month seal hunting operation,
Figure 7. Interior of sealer’s cave showing canvas material,
sealskin box, bed frame and wooden shelf in far
right corner (Photo: Ross Anderson, WA Museum).
Figure 6. Detail of rolled up cured sealskin (Courtesy
Esperance Bay Historical Society).
with the aim of procuring both fur and hair sealskins for
sale on the London market (Register 14/4/1920; SRO
1920/1993). The expedition collected a total of 496 fur
skins and 333 hair skins (Letter Secretary of Fisheries
Department to Acting Comptroller of Stores 26/11/1920
SRO 1920/1993; Letter Recherche Syndicate to Chief
Inspector Fisheries 21/9/1920 SRO 1920/1993).
A sealer’s cave in the Archipelago of the Recherche
In June 2005 a group of amateur historians relocated a
sealer’s cave (Fig. 4), following the original report of its
discovery 55 years earlier by the Australian Geographic
Society (Bechervaise 1950). The group recovered four
sealskins that had been rolled up into bundles (Figs. 5
& 6) and artefacts including corroded metal cans and
metal baking tins. All of the artefacts were handed in
to the Esperance Bay Historical Society for safekeeping.
In 2006, funding was obtained by University of
Western Australia archaeologist Dr Alistair Paterson
for an archaeological expedition to investigate sites
related to sealing and whaling in the Archipelago of the
Recherche, and visited the area between 15 and 26 April
2006. The team included Esperance Area Traditional
Owner Mr Ron ‘Doc’ Reynolds, staff and students from
the University of Western Australia and staff from the
Western Australian Museum’s Department of Maritime
Archaeology. The objectives were to survey and excavate
historical archaeological features on Middle Island, and
survey the sealer’s cave to record the remaining artefacts
and features (Paterson & Souter 2006).
The cave was situated on a granite island overlaid
with limestone, about halfway up a gully surrounded
by limestone cliffs and well camouflaged by vegetation
(Paterson & Souter 2006: 28). The cave entrance
faced eastwards and the cave interior consisted of a
larger main chamber with the entrance (Fig. 6), and
a smaller rear chamber. The dirt floor had a build
up of bird droppings, feathers and remains of dead
muttonbird carcasses. In the approximate centre of
the floor of the main chamber was a wooden frame
described as a ‘bed’. Remnants of sealskin and loose
hairs were found caught in nails in situ on the top edge
of the timbers along with remains of hessian (Paterson
& Souter 2006: 29).
Other features in the main chamber included a
crumpled canvas sail or tarpaulin in friable condition
with copper alloy grommets and rope attached, a pine
box in which the bundles of processed sealskins were
originally discovered, and a small wooden shelf built
into the side of the cave used to store tins of preserved
foodstuffs. The canvas may have been used as a doorway
covering or makeshift bed for another occupant(s).
The rear chamber contained the collapsed remains of
a wooden pine box with a clump of salt used in the skin
curing process and most likely obtained locally from Pink
Lake at Esperance or Middle Island (Fig. 8). Samples
were obtained of the canvas sail, remnant seal hairs and
salt (Paterson & Souter 2006: 36).
The size of the cave, the single bed frame and its
archaeological assemblage are indicative of just one or
two people occasionally visiting the island with supplies for
short periods to conduct sealing. Seals or sea lions would
have been killed and skinned with the blubber scraped
off most likely using the ‘beaming’ technique, where the
skin is stretched over a wooden beam and scraped with a
knife (R. Warneke 2013, pers. comm., 11 July).
The skins were then transported uphill to the cave,
cured with salt then rolled up for packing in boxes or
casks for transport off the island. Based on the type of
manufacture of the metal cans that were dated to the
early 20th century (S. Bolton to R. Anderson, 2013,
pers. comm. 11 August), the sealskins are believed
to be associated with this period. Unfortunately the
corroded metal food tins have since been inadvertently
discarded by the Esperance Bay Historical Society and
further analysis is not possible.
The early 20th century date accords with
information provided at the time of the cave’s initial
discovery, when members of the 1950 Australian
Geographic Society expedition learned that ‘the father
of a man named White who lives in Esperance’ visited
the island in the 1920s for the purposes of sealing
(Bechervaise 1950). The island was also reportedly used
to maroon Indigenous pastoral workers and prisoners
Figure 9. Detail of chlorides apparent on treated sealskins
(Photo: Carmela Corvaia, WA Museum).
Figure 8. Salt with remains of timber box (Photo: Ross
Anderson, WA Museum).
in the late 19th century, and has potential for further
archaeological excavation to discover information on
the history and prehistory of the Archipelago of the
Conservation issues
The Esperance Bay Historical Society sought advice from
the Western Australian Museum on the conservation
requirements of the sealskins, with a view to their long-
term preservation and creating a display in the Esperance
Museum. All four bundles of sealskins were handed
in to the Department of Materials Conservation for
conservation assessment and treatment.
All vertebrate skins have a similar structure made
up of interwoven collagen fibres (Angus 2002: 2).
Typical conservation issues with skins include hair
loss, insects and other pests and damage to the skins
(Heiberger 2002: 88). In a museum environment,
insects have potential to cause the most damage as
they can eat the skin and hair, while their eggs and
frass stick to the hairs and are difficult to remove
(Heiberger 2002: 89). Being generally quite thin, skins
are susceptible to mechanical damage and, if allowed
to dry out too much, they may tear or become set in
folds and creases (Heiberger 2002: 89).
Curators and conservators favour a minimalist
intervention approach to treating archaeological
materials, as interventive and non-reversible methods
may remove valuable information from the object. In this
case, only minimal treatment was undertaken in order to
stabilise and preserve the skins.
The four bundles of sealskins arrived at the Department
of Materials Conservation Laboratory packed in plastic
bags. The sealskins were composed primarily of skin
and fur, with inclusions of particulate matter and debris
from the cave environment. The skins are a tan brown
in colour, and the fur is black and brown.
The fur is mainly located on the upper sections
of the exposed surfaces and at the edges of the rolled
sections where it appears patchy and uneven. The
condition of the skins is generally dry and hard, and
quite brittle in places where fingernails could make
impressions and marks. No attempt was made to
unroll the skins due to the likelihood of breakage and
permanent damage. Visible damage included hair loss
and abrasion from salts and the environment. Sealskin
hairs and loose particulate matter from the cave such
as dust, feathers, plant fibres, limestone debris and
dirt were dislodged when the skins were handled and
moved. The skins also emitted a strong odour when
they were removed from their plastic bags possibly due
to a combination of salts from the curing process and
residual animal fats, so were stored in a fume cupboard.
Conservation treatment
On arrival to the Conservation Department, the skins were
frozen at −20 °C for one week to eradicate any pests that
could potentially cause damage to the skins. After the pest
treatment was completed, the skins were tested for surface
chlorides and the presence of bacteria or mould. Surface
chloride tests confirmed that the skins had an extremely
high level of salt (greater than 100 000 parts per million),
which indicated they were likely to have been salt-cured
(Fig. 9). Envirocheck® Contact slides were used to test
for bacteria or mould on the skins although these tests
proved inconclusive due to problems with the regulation
of the temperature setting of the oven.
The sealskins were then wrapped in acid free tissue
paper and stored in polypropylene Nally® tubs with
some activated carbon chips (in Tyvek® bags) to absorb
any odours. They were then monitored over a period of
10 months for any signs of change due to their high salt
content and were returned to the curators for permanent
storage once their conditions appeared to be stable and
the odour deemed removed.
There is little literature available on the use of
activated carbon as a method of removing odours in
museum collections though it is commonly used as an
adsorbent for many pollutants including volatile organic
compounds such as acetic acid, and for removing odours
in industrial and commercial businesses. Activated carbon
is inert porous graphite in the form of layers of plate-like
aromatic ring formations, thus, forming a rigid skeletal
structure in which more than 75% consists of voids. These
voids may be 1 to 5 molecular diameters in width, and
their surfaces provide sites for adsorption. Molecules
are held in activated carbon by physical adsorption and
the degree to which a substance is adsorbed by activated
carbon depends on its molecular size and weight, which
is indicated by critical temperature and boiling point
(Hatchfield 2002: 118).
In 2009 curators advised that a strong smell was
emanating from the sealskins and retreatment was
undertaken. As activated carbon had originally been
used inside the Nally® tubs to absorb the odour of the
sealskins, it was decided to keep using it but to change
the composition of the pouch from Tyvek® to a more
breathable fabric so that the activated carbon could adsorb
more of the odours. Due to the lack of conservation
literature on recommended quantities to use per square
metre, it was considered that a greater amount of activated
carbon should work more effectively over a longer
period of time, and the quantity of activated carbon was
increased. It should be noted that high levels of relative
humidity decrease the maximum adsorption capacity of
activated carbon, which is present at relative humidity
(RH) levels of 50–60% and become more prevalent at
higher levels (Hatchfield 2002: 119). As part of ongoing
research into the sealskins, in 2012, the Department of
Maritime Archaeology staff invited Oliver Berry from the
Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organisation
(CSIRO) to identify the species of origin of the sealskins
using a DNA sequence analysis method.
DNA sequence analysis
The CSIRO team employed a DNA barcoding approach
to identify the species from which the recovered
sealskins originated. A summary of the principles of DNA
barcoding are provided by Valentini et al. (2009). Briefly,
the principle of DNA barcoding is that most organisms
carry diagnostic DNA sequences, and species identities
can be determined by obtaining DNA sequences from
specimens of interest and comparison to reference
DNA sequences from known specimens (Hebert et al.
2003). Two important advantages that DNA barcoding
has over conventional morphological identification is
that first, it is a near-universal technology and, so long
as appropriate reference specimens are available, species
can be identified without specialist taxonomic expertise;
and second, specimens may be identified even where
diagnostic morphological characters are absent. Meta-
analyses comparing species assignment for specimens
of known identity have revealed it to be highly accurate
(e.g. Hebert et al. 2004; Ward et al. 2005).
Working with historical and potentially degraded samples
requires care to avoid contamination with DNA from high
quality contemporary samples. To this end, all sealskin
DNA extractions and polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
setups were conducted in a laboratory dedicated to the
analysis of low quality DNA samples and free of amplified
DNA. PCR setups were conducted in a dedicated chamber
within this laboratory, which was routinely exposed
to UV light to minimise opportunities for DNA cross-
contamination. In addition, DNA extraction and PCR
controls (no DNA template added) were employed to
check for contamination.
The polymerase chain reaction is an enzymatic process
whereby small starting numbers of a targeted DNA
molecule are copied many times to generate thousands to
millions of copies (Mullis et al. 1986). The preparation of
this abundant DNA template is a necessary pre-condition
for the visualisation of the DNA sequence. A 683
fragment of the mitochondrial DNA cytochrome b gene
was amplified from the seal skin samples with PCR primers
designed from sequences of the New Zealand Fur Seal
(Arctochephalus australis forsteri) (Berry et al. 2012). PCR
reactions were conducted in 25 μL volumes as follows: 1
x Buffer (Fisher Biotec, Perth, Western Australia), 2 mM
MgCl2, 0.2 μM each primer (Afos-tRNA-Glu-F12, Afos-
Cytb-R602), 0.25 mM each dNTP, 3 μL of DNA template
(~300 ng), and 3U Tth Taq (Fisher Biotec). Replicate
PCRs employing DNA from the 30 μL and 100 μL elution
were used. PCRs cycled through 94 °C 2 minutes, (94
°C 40 seconds, 52 °C 40 seconds, 72 °C 40 seconds) x
30, 72 °C 5 minutes. PCR products were cleaned using
a MoBio UltraClean kit (MoBio Laboratories, Carlsbad,
California). Forward and reverse sequencing reactions
used ABI BigDye chemistry (Foster City, California) and
sequences were obtained with an Applied Biosystems 3730
capillary sequencer (Foster City, California).
Obtained sequences were checked for errors and edited
by eye using GENEIOUS software (Biomatters, Auckland,
New Zealand), and consensus made from overlapping
forward and reverse sequences. An alignment between
the retrieved sequences and sequences from candidate
Figure 10. Consensus neighbour-joining tree based on DNA
sequence similarities between skin samples and
candidate fur seal and sea lion species (Tamura-Nei
genetic distance with 1000 bootstrap resampled
replicates). Values at nodes indicate percentage
of bootstrap resampling replicates that returned
an identical grouping of DNA sequences. Values
greater than 75% are considered well supported.
Scale bar indicates the genetic distance between tips
in nucleotide differences per nucleotide position.
Figure 11. Sealskins display at Esperance Museum (Photo:
Esperance Bay Historical Society).
species was conducted with the MUSCLE algorithm (Edgar
2004) using default alignment parameters. Alignment of
homologous nucleotides facilitates calculation of similarity
between DNA sequences. Candidate species included in
the alignment were: Arctocephalus australis forsteri (Genbank
Accession: NC_004023), Arctocephalus gazella (Acc.
X82292.1), Arctocephalus pusillus (Acc. NC_008417.1),
Neophoca cinerea (Acc. NC_008419.1), Phocarctos hookeri
(Acc. NC_008418.1). These sequences can be retrieved
from the GenBank database (<http://www.ncbi.nlm.>). A neighbour-joining tree that
depicts the genetic similarity between the DNA sequences
obtained from the sealskins and the candidate species was
built from the alignment based on the Tamura-Nei genetic
distance model. The Tamura-Nei model gives different
weight to transitional and translational DNA nucleotide
changes. Support for the relationships established by the
neighbour-joining tree was evaluated with 1 000 bootstrap
resampling replicates of the sequence data.
Two skin samples (BIS4564A, BIS4565C) yielded forward
and reverse sequences enabling construction of consensus
sequences of 554 nucleotides length. The sequences from
the two skins were identical (Table 1), and neighbour-
joining tree analysis grouped them with high bootstrap
support with the Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) and
to the exclusion of other candidate species, in particular
the New Zealand fur seal (A.a. forsteri) (Fig. 10). The
skin sequences were 99.5% identical to the Australian
sea lion reference sequence (3 of 554 nt different),
and exhibited 40–41 nucleotide differences from the
remaining candidate species (Table 1).
The Esperance Bay Historical Society proposed that two
of the sealskins be included in a permanent display at the
Esperance Museum in collaboration with the Western
Australian Museum. The sealskins required light surface
cleaning to remove loose debris and fur from the surface
to prevent further loss during transport and handling. The
sealskins were brush vacuumed carefully using very low
suction and a small vacuum attachment nozzle covered
in gauze to remove loose debris.
As skins are vulnerable to high humidity levels and
prefer low temperatures, environmental parameters for
the showcase recommended light levels of 200 lux; 75μW/
lumen for UV, temperature of 20 °C ± 2 and RH (daily)
45% ± 5. These specific environmental conditions were
required as too low a humidity could lead to the skins
drying out and becoming brittle and too high a humidity
could encourage mould growth and hydrolyse the salt
used to cure the skins. An extra quantity of activated
carbon was provided to the Esperance Museum curators
to reduce the odour and prevent a build up of potential
volatile organic compounds that may build up inside
the showcase over time. A quantity of silica gel was also
provided as a method of keeping the relative humidity
low if required. On 20 February 2012 the sealskins were
packed and transported to the Esperance Museum, where
they were displayed with associated interpretation on
sealing and related archaeological sites in the Archipelago
of the Recherche (Fig. 11).
To the authors’ knowledge, no other archaeological site
containing in-situ processed sealskins has been located in
Australia or New Zealand. The sealer’s cave is, therefore,
a rare and unique site for:
a. being an archaeological site that can definitely be
associated with sealing activities; and,
b. for the intact archaeological assemblage it contains.
Historical and archaeological research dates the
sealer’s cave to a period of early 20th-century sealing.
The site appears to have been utilised by no more than
one or two individuals. The archaeological assemblage
demonstrates the process used for curing and transporting
sealskins. Chloride tests undertaken during conservation
revealed high levels of salt, thus, confirming that the skins
were salt-cured.
Table 1. Uncorrected percentage sequence difference between 554 nt sequences of the mtDNA cytochrome b gene obtained
from skin samples collected from the Archipelago of the Recherche, and from candidate fur seal and sea lion species..
Sample/Species Seal Skin
Seal Skin
Seal skin BIS4565C 100
Neophoca cinerea 99.5 99.5
Arctocephalus pusillus 92.6 92.6 92.4
Phocarctos hookeri 92.8 92.8 93 94
Arctocephalus forsteri 92.6 92.6 92.4 93.1 93.9
Arctocephalus gazella 92.8 92.8 92.6 93.3 93 94.6
DNA sequence analysis has identified the sealskins
as being Australian sea lion (Neophoca cinerea) skins.
Australian sea lions were less favoured by sealers than
New Zealand fur seals and their presence in an early 20th-
century sealer’s cache may reflect the marginal nature
of the sealing resource at that time when New Zealand
fur seals may have been close to regional extinction
(Campbell 2005; Berry et al. 2012). The fact the skins were
abandoned may be a sign of the overall unsustainability
and abandonment of the industry at this time.
Australian sea lions are Australia’s only endemic seal,
are one of the world’s rarest seals, and have shown limited
recovery from sealing in comparison to the increasingly
more abundant New Zealand fur seal. Contributing to
this slow demographic response is the extreme population
structure that characterises the species, with each breeding
colony effectively exchanging no females (Campbell et al.
2008). It is unclear whether this represents a historical
pattern that pre-dates sealing or if it is a response to the low
densities caused by sealing (Campbell et al. 2008). Existing
DNA data shows that Australian sea lion breeding colonies
in Western Australia retain highly distinct mitochondrial
DNA sequences (Campbell et al. 2008).
Future analysis of historical Australian sea lion skins
from additional locations would reveal the origins of
this extreme population sub-division and permit a better
understanding of the reasons for the slow recovery of
the species. Similar analysis of seal population dynamics
preceding and in response to sealing has been conducted
from sub-fossil bones of the northern fur seal (Callorhinus
ursinus) (Pinksy et al. 2010), and northern elephant seals
(Mirounga angustirostris) (Weber et al. 2000).
The sealer’s cave and its intact archaeological assemblage
have both significant cultural and natural heritage values.
The high quality of the DNA sequences obtained from
the preserved skin samples indicates that sealskins are
potentially an excellent resource for understanding
historical seal population dynamics and, potentially,
sealing practices through DNA sequencing analysis.
Future discoveries of any intact historical sealskins in
archaeological sites or sampling from well provenanced
museum collections would be valuable for further
DNA analysis. Overall the authors emphasise the value
of a multidisciplinary approach to investigating and
interpreting historical sealing activities.
The 2006 expedition was funded through a University
of Western Australia Research Grants Scheme project
‘An historical archaeological investigation of sealing
and whaling archaeological sites in the Recherche
Archipelago, Western Australia’ ($21 882) awarded to
Dr Alistair Paterson in 2006.
Ron ‘Doc’ Reynolds, Esperance Area Traditional
Owner. Yvette Hitchen conducted the DNA laboratory
analysis. Department of Environment and Conservation
(DEC), Esperance Office. Dr Richard Campbell and
Dr Robert Warneke, pinniped biologists. Dr Samantha
Bolton, historical archaeologist. Dot Andre and Wendy
Plunkett, Esperance Bay Historical Society. John Robinson,
Carina Mitchell, Danell Cameron and Ian ‘Tarry’
Tarbottom, site reporters. Adam Wolfe, historian and
maritime archaeologist.
Magellan Metals provided community grant funding
to the Esperance Bay Historical Society to purchase the
sealskins display case and interpretation panels.
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Full-text available
Commercial harvest severely reduced the abundance of New Zealand fur seals (NZFSs; Arctocephalus australis forsteri), and the subspecies may have become regionally extinct in Western Australia (WA). NZFS populations are now expanding in WA and this study aimed to determine the origin of these populations and distinguish local recruitment from external recolonization. Mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene sequences were obtained from 137 NZFSs from breeding colonies in WA and South Australia (SA), and analyzed with sequences from Tasmania and New Zealand. Genetic differentiation among WA and SA populations was low, indicating extensive genetic exchange throughout this large region. Three unique haplotypes, however, were recorded from WA, supporting the local recruitment hypothesis. Moreover, a test for asymmetrical gene flow identified a predominance of migration from WA to SA, suggesting a role of WA NZFSs in the recovery of more heavily exploited SA NZFS populations. Significant genetic differentiation was evident between SA and Tasmania, indicating limited genetic exchange despite the close proximity of these populations. Examination of our data suggests NZFSs were not extirpated from WA, have retained unique genetic variants, and that peripheral, lowdensity populations may have had a role in the recolonization of heavily exploited populations.
Full-text available
The reefs surrounding the Gilbert Islands (Republic of Kiribati, Central Pacific), like many throughout the world, have undergone a period of rapid and intensive environmental perturbation over the past 100 years. A byproduct of this perturbation has been a reduction of the number of shark species present in their waters, even though sharks play an important in the economy and culture of the Gilbertese. Here we examine how shark communities changed over time periods that predate the written record in order to understand the magnitude of ecosystem changes in the Central Pacific. Using a novel data source, the shark tooth weapons of the Gilbertese Islanders housed in natural history museums, we show that two species of shark, the Spot-tail (Carcharhinus sorrah) and the Dusky (C. obscurus), were present in the islands during the last half of the 19(th) century but not reported in any historical literature or contemporary ichthyological surveys of the region. Given the importance of these species to the ecology of the Gilbert Island reefs and to the culture of the Gilbertese people, documenting these shifts in baseline fauna represents an important step toward restoring the vivid splendor of both ecological and cultural diversity.
Details of skin cargoes of fur seal Arctocephalus spp. and sea lion Neophoca cinerea and Phocarctos hookeri, originating from southern Australia, New Zealand and the adjacent subantarctic islands in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries have been collated from several secondary historical sources. These sources quoted quantities of skins in terms of actual tallied numbers, as untallied "cargoes" or as casks, sacks or bundles. Untallied cargoes were converted into numbers by averaging tallied cargoes; and casks, sacks and bundles were arbitrarily deemed to contain 40, 20 and 5 skins respectively. Annual and total yields of skins are presented for ten separate areas in the region: Bass Strait, King Island, Kangaroo Island, Western Australia, New Zealand, Bounty Islands, Auckland Islands, Antipodes Islands, Campbell Island and Macquarie Island. At least 1 367 000 fur seal skins were harvested between 1792 and 1948/49 in the whole of the Australasian region. More than 1 309 000 skins - 96% of the total - were taken up to 1830. Records indicate that only about 4 100 Neophoca and 5 800 Phocarctos were obtained from their respective areas. These figures must be regarded as minimal, as it is likely that many cargoes were obtained by English, American and French vessels and shipped directly to European or Asian markets. There was also likely to have been a considerable wastage and loss of skins as well as many going unreported and directly to overseas markets. Nevertheless, summation of these historical cargoes gives some idea of the sizes of the seal colonies that were subjected to this exploitation, the intensity of the early sealing industry and the speed of its demise. Given the likely amount of wastage, the total harvest probably exceeded 1.5 million seals. The specific identities of fur seals harvested at the various islands are not known precisely, but it is likely that only A. forsteri and A. pusillus doriferus occurred on fur seal islands around southern Australia. A. forsteri was the probable target species around New Zealand, but the identity of the original species at Macquarie Island is still open to considerable doubt. Sealing provided the New South Wales colony with its first export industry. It also generated significant local employment. At today's money values the industry up to 1830 would have been worth at least one hundred million dollars. Australian colonial sealing followed a very similar pattern to the industry in the South Atlantic; being contemporaneous, accounting for about the same number of fur seals, and depleting the stocks just as severely and rapidly. The recovery of Australasian fur seal populations, however, appears not to have been as dramatic as those in the South Atlantic; due, possibly, to differing quantities of available food.
Details of southern elephant seal oil and fur seal and sea lion skin cargoes have been extracted from a large number of secondary sources dealing with Australian and New Zealand maritime history, which in turn referred to numerous primary sources of information. The data were collated and analysed for ten areas in the south-west Pacific region and published recently in two separate larger works. This review is a synthesis and analysis of the impact of the colonial sealing industry on seal stocks in the region, based on those papers, with some minor revisions and reference to works by other authors. Colonial sealing lasted from the late 18th to the mid- 19th century and was followed by sporadic hunting until the late 1940s. Southern elephant seals (Mirounga leonina) were hunted for their oil; and Australian fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus), New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri), Australian sea lions (Neophoca cinerea) and New Zealand sea lions (Phocarctos hookeri) were targeted for their skins and some oil. At least 1,081 tons of elephant seal oil were shipped from King Is. between 1802 and 1819, while 8,380 tons were shipped from Macquarie Is. between 1810 and 1919. More than 1.4 million skins of both species of fur seals were harvested between 1792 and 1949, but only 4,000 Neophoca and 5,700 Phocarctos pelts are recorded as having been shipped by 1840. The Antipodes Islands yielded more than a quarter of the total fur seal skin harvest, and New Zealand and southern Australia each delivered a quarter of the total. Current numbers of the two species of fur seals combined are about a tenth of the crudely estimated size (1.5 million) of the original population. The exploited fur seals and sea lions were probably the same species as occur today at the original sealing localities, apart from Macquarie Is. where the identity of the exploited fur seals remains in doubt. There is some evidence that Maoris and Australian Aborigines hunted seals in pre-European times, resulting in reduced ranges and depleted stocks that were exploited later by colonial sealers.
New Zealand fur seals, Arctocephalus forsteri, have been increasing in abundance in South Australia for at least the past three decades. A survey of New Zealand fur seals during the 1989/90 breeding season determined that about 20% of the Australian population bred at 16 sites in Western Australia, amounting to 1429 pups and an absolute abundance estimate of 7100 fur seals. A further survey of all fur seal colonies in Western Australia to determine current pup production and abundance estimates, and trends in pup production since the previous survey was undertaken in January 1999. Of the 17 breeding sites now known in Western Australia, 16 were surveyed and pup production had increased at all but one. The rate of change in pup production at the one unsurveyed site (West Island), was estimated as being equivalent to the mean rate of change at other sites. The estimated mean annual, exponential rate of increase (r) for all sites was 0.09, equivalent to a 9.8% annual increase in pup production and an overall increase in pup production in Western Australia of 113.3% between surveys. Total annual pup production has increased to 3090. The estimate of absolute abundance of New Zealand fur seals in Western Australia is now 15 100, in contrast to the 7100 estimated for the 1989/90 season. Mortality of pups at the time of the survey was estimated to be at least 1.3%. It is predicted that New Zealand fur seal populations will continue to increase in Western Australia. This is likely to have important management implications regarding aquaculture and fisheries activities. The increase in fur seal populations appears to be in contrast to populations of Australian sea lions, Neophoca cinerea, for which preliminary data show no evidence for a population increase. It is unknown whether the dynamics affecting these two species are related.
Human exploitation of pinnipeds has considerable antiquity but shows increasing impacts on population numbers in the Holocene. Pinnipeds are a rich source of fat as well as protein. A few well-documented cases of regional extirpation of seals and sea lions by non-industrial peoples exist. The northeastern Pacific region, from southern California to Alaska, has yielded archaeological evidence for distributions and abundances of eared seals that differs markedly from historically documented biogeography. This is especially true of the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus), among the most common pinnipeds in many archaeological sites from the Santa Barbara Channel area through to Kodiak Islands. This chapter reviews contemporary eared seal biogeography, evidence for the earlier timing and extent, of occurrence of northern fur seals along the northeastern Pacific coast, zooarchaeological and isotopic evidence for their foraging and probable maintenance of rookeries in lower latitudes, and for their disappearance from the southernmost part of their ancient distribution well before European contact. It also reviews ongoing debates over the behavioral ecology of ancient fur seals and over humans role in contributing to their disappearance.
The Australian sea-lion, Neophoca cinerea, has a 17-18-month breeding cycle on islands off the west coast of Western Australia. Buller, North Fisherman and Beagle Is are the main pupping sites, with several very small colonies (n> 3) at the Abrolhos Is. The 4-5-month pupping seasons are synchronised at North Fisherman and Beagle Is, but the sea-lions from Buller I. breed one month later and those from the Abrolhos Is two months earlier. Pup production and pup mortality were highly variable between seasons over which observations were recorded: 129 pups were born at the main breeding sites in early 1988, the mortality in the first five months was 7.1%, whereas 181 pups were born in late 1989 of which 24.3% died. Pups remain in the vicinity of their natal islands for the first 4-5 months of life before leaving, perhaps on foraging trips, with their mothers. Most return to their natal island, although others haulout on islands up to 27 km away. Some male N. cinerea congregate in bachelor colonies on islands adjacent to the Perth metropolitan region during the non-breeding season and migrate up to 280 km north each breeding season. The status of the isolated, west-coast N. cinerea population is unknown. The current high level of human pressure on sea-lion terrestrial habitats and their food resources indicate a need for further monitoring of this species.