Early European settlers of Newfoundland harvested seals. Seals were an important source of meat in a land that often did not provide much variety of food, and for years the seal hunt was for subsistence only — relied upon for those brave enough to stay on the island year-round.
But by the mid-1700s, seals were being transported to England and sold for their meat, pelts, and oil. Seal oil became prized as lamp oil, cooking oil, and an ingredient for soap. In 1793, the first schooners sailed to the seal herds of the the ice-packed North Atlantic. They were so successful that dozens of other boats followed suit, and the seal hunt became nearly as important to the economy of the colony as its summer cod fishery.
The work was intense, and dangerous. Sealers spent 12 hours or more at a time on the ice in all weather, harvesting seals which would be later picked up by their vessel.
By the 1860s, steamships were engaging in the hunt with larger carrying capacities and reinforced hulls designed to break through ice. Pressure was increased on those engaged in the hunt to work faster and in all ice and weather conditions. A peak of 500,000 seals were taken annually.
By the end of the 1800s, sealing was second only to cod fishing as a source of income — and an important winter activity for those who fished seasonally. In the first decades of the 20th century, the seal hunt was epic: the captains of sealing ships were celebrities engaged in a race to see who could fill their holds fastest. The competition to secure a berth on a sealing vessel was fierce, in spite of unpleasant, dangerous working conditions.
Although the pace of the hunt slowed in the first half of the 20th century, in the 1950s and 1960s an average of 290,000 seals were taken off the coast of Newfoundland. The seal population was suffering and, in 1971, the Canadian government instituted its first quota. For the next decade, an average of about 160,000 seal were taken each year.
While the traditions of sealing are not as long-standing as they are with indigenous culture, the early settlers of Newfoundland did rely on seal, first as a source of meat in a diet with little variety, and then as a source of income, in addition to the cod fishery.
In many communities, particularly along the northeast coast and the Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, the seal harvest was the factor that allowed year-round settlement, ushering in new traditions of craft, skill, and foodways.
Not surprisingly, then, the reduction in the seal harvest has negatively affected coastal communities, especially when taken in conjunction with the decimation of the important fish stocks. Not only is seal as a source of food and livelihood being taken away, but the traditions and methods of seal hunting, as well as the accompanying knowledge and sensitivity to the ocean’s ecosystem are diminishing. This loss has widespread repercussions.
On the positive side, the industry, in collaboration with provincial and federal governments, are working diligently to find new markets for seal products. Talented local designers and craftspeople across the province are creating boots, clothing, and accessories out of seal pelts that are elevating the fur’s status. High-end restaurants have begun adding seal to their menus. Oil is being recognized for its many health benefits. These efforts are igniting a newfound pride in Newfoundland and Labrador’s sealing culture.
Today, about 6,000 Atlantic Canadians are active in the seal harvest. Their culture and lifestyle have been shaped by the inhospitable and sometimes dangerous environment in which they live and work. Sealers and their families have survived for centuries by procuring seasonally available food. They tended communal kitchen gardens, harvested of wild berries, hunted wild game and sea birds, and captured fresh fish and seafood. From this necessity of living off the land grew a culture of economic adaptation, hard work, and respect for the land and sea.
Today, all sealers are licensed and trained and hunt from their own small fishing boats. Large vessels are prohibited for sealing. All sealers receive mandatory training in quality assurance and veterinarian-approved humane harvesting techniques. Almost all sealers are seasonal fishermen who rely on sealing to help compensate for declining stocks of commercial fish such as cod.
In 2006, the landed value of harp seals exceeded $30 million. That number has since fallen significantly, due to anti-sealing campaigns which have resulted in ill-conceived and damaging import bans on seal products. The loss is being felt acutely in rural coastal communities, where a few thousand dollars can mean the difference between being able to meet a family’s needs and not, and jobs can be scarce, particularly at certain times of year.
“Although the seal hunt is not the only element holding the community together, it is primarily the loss of knowledge and identity that indicates the important role of seal hunting in coastal communities in Newfoundland.”
—Nikolas Sellheim, “The Right Not to be Indigenous: Seal Utilization in Newfoundland” (2014)