San Diego Natural History Museum--Your Nature ConnectionHistory of the Museum

Sea Lion Devastation

Clinton Abbott Biography

Sea Lion Devastation
  -Chronology of Events
  -About Sea Lions
  -About Elephant Seals

Related Links

Notable People & Events
Research Library Archives
History of the Museum

Clinton Abbott with walrus tusks
In late 1937, Clinton G. Abbott, Director of the San Diego Natural History Museum, received a letter from an acquaintance who had heard rumors about sea lions (Zalophus californianus) being killed off the Mexican coast for their use in dog and cat food. Horrified by the prospect of such highly intelligent animals being killed, Abbott would soon embark on a two year journey to protect Mexico and California’s marine mammals. This is the story of Abbott’s and the San Diego Natural History Museum’s ultimately successful efforts to stem the slaughter.

While sea lions had been legally protected in some form or another in California since 1909, Mexico had yet to follow suit. Taking advantage of this fact, the Dr. W. J. Ross Dog and Cat Food Company of Los Alamitos employed three ships (one, the Romancia, was previously the private yacht of King Alfonso of Spain) to sail into Mexican waters and set anchor near one of the many sea lion rookeries on the islands off the western Mexican coast.

Photo of the Romancia, LP Telegraph, 1937 
Photo of the ship, Romancia, used to take sea lions.
LP Telegraph, 1937

Men would then go ashore and scare the animals into the water where waiting nets would scoop them up for slaughter on the boats. In this way, the Ross Company would kill over 150 sea lions a day, a number comparable to other sea lion hunters in the area.

Sea lion carcasses
Unlike the other hunters, though, the Ross Company sent the sea lion meat back to California, breaking state law protecting the mammal. This quickly caught the eye of many conservationists in San Diego, including many in the San Diego Society of Natural History. First notified by T. N. Faulconer, the former director of the San Diego Zoo, in late November or early December of 1937, Clinton Abbott quickly picked up the torch.

Worried about people’s perception that he was a “mere museumist” approaching the issue with more sentimentality than business acumen, the director enlisted the help of numerous outside agencies. Communicating with the California Department of Fish and Game, the American Society of Mammalogists, and the Mexican government, Abbott soon fleshed out an approach to end the Ross Company’s operation.

Elephant seals close-up, Gualalupe Island, June 26.

Worried most about the ethical implications of killing such intelligent mammals, as well as the disruption of local ecosystems, Abbott would routinely use the humane aspect of his argument to first appeal to anyone with an open ear. Another troubling issue he highlighted was the probable killing of the northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), at that time one of the world’s most endangered marine mammal species. Reduced to a sole rookery on Guadalupe Island, the seals had numbered as few as eight individuals in the early 1890s. Given formal protection by the Mexican government in 1922, the seals had seen their numbers slowly rise in the time since.
  Map of Guadalupe Island, date unknown, courtest of USGS
Map of Guadalupe Island, date unknown.
Courtesy of USGS

The proximity between Ross’ suspected hunting grounds and the few elephant seals left in this hemisphere gave Abbott added ammunition when dealing with Mexican authorities. Making pointed references to Ross employees bragging about “cleaning up a lot of elephant seals” and the “excellent protection” given the seals by the Mexican government, Abbott would routinely use the suspected slaughter of elephant seals to give weight to his own argument against the known slaughter of California sea lions.

Bolstered by his compatriots’ support, and infuriated by the Mexican government’s renewal of the Ross Company’s concession late in 1938, Abbott wrote an article on the sea lion slaughter for Bird-Lore, the journal of the Audubon Society at the time. The article was met with a positive reception throughout the United States and Mexico, and reprinted numerous times.

While the article was the highlight of the conservancy effort for Clinton Abbott, as he withdrew himself from the struggle shortly after the article appeared, the protection of sea lions and elephant seals continued to be a hot button issue throughout the 1940s.

The legacy of the conservation effort to protect California sea lions, marine mammals, and the Pacific coastline lives on today in the United States in the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act. The San Diego Natural History Museum continues to be a leader in these efforts, as highlighted in the film Ocean Oasis and the Binational Multidisciplinary Expedition to Guadalupe Island.