||January/February 2000 issue
FEATURE - THE SEAL HUNT
Sealing thorugh the years
4,000 years ago Archaic
Indians on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula hunt seals.
Early 16th century Basques,
Portuguese, French, British and Acadians begin to hunt seals
off present-day Atlantic Canada. Early fishing settlers, like
their descendents today, use sealing as a means to earn income
in the off-season.
1750’s European demand
for oil and skins leads to the development of a commercial seal
1773 The sealing industry in Newfoundland reaches its
first peak when almost 128,000 seals are landed, including about
50,000 whitecoats, a result of whelping ice carried inshore to
within walking distance of local inhabitants
1794 Wooden sailing ships first leave St. John’s harbour
in search of seals. "The industry grew, bringing foreign
investment and employing not only sealers but shipbuilders, carpenters,
sailmasters and refiners who extracted the prized oil from seal
1800-1865 Some 400 vessels
are lost and 1,000 men perish in the seal hunt
1800-1840 More people from more ports are working in
the sealing industry than at any other time.
1818 Beginning of the Golden Age of Sealing in the
northwest Atlantic as more and larger vessels are sent to the
ice, with a new record of more than 200,000 seals landed. Large-scale
commercial fishery for seals begins as sailing schooners take
men to the ice to hunt seals on the whelping patches. By 1862,
more than 18.3 million seals are landed in Newfoundland, primarily
1850s Seal fishery is second only to the cod fishery
in Newfoundland’s economy as the hunt becomes entrenched in the
island’s economy, culture and tradition. The annual hunt is worth
between $1 and $1.5 million in Newfoundland.
1863 The introduction of larger, steam-powered vessels
(called wooden-walls) raises the stakes in the sealing industry.
The expense involved in operating and acquiring steamers leads
to domination of the industry by wealthy boat owners and profits
become the driving force. Employment conditions rapidly deteriorate
for the men going to the ice: they are underfed, having only
sea biscuits and tea for days at a time, given little or no warm
clothing or safety gear and are forced to share bunks. Seventy-two
percent of the steamers would be lost, usually crushed in the
ice or sunk travelling to or from the killing fields.
1899 "The century ends with a total recorded kill
of 33 million seals," primarily whitecoats
1914 The Great Newfoundland
Sealing Disaster leads to the death of 78 sealers while another
173 men are lost at sea with the sinking of the Southern Cross.
1921 Aircraft are first used to locate the depleted
seal herds. Contemporary critics argue this will ensure the seal’s
Late 1920s Machinery replaces skinners who remove fat
from skin after pelts are landed. In a 10-hour workday, these
craftsmen could skin out about 450 young harp pelts.
1949-1961 After a decline through the world wars (when
sealing ships were in wartime service) and the Depression, the
hunt again becomes profitable, primarily because of demands for
fur and leather. An average of 310,000 seals is taken annually
off the East Coast.
1950s Observers from various humane societies first
go to the ice and begin to express concerns about the cruelty
involved in killing the seals
1950-1970 The northwest-Atlantic harp seal population
declines by 50 percent
March 1964 The anti-sealing movement is born as television
images of the seal hunt are broadcast around the world. The issue
of cruelty explodes onto the international scene when the CBC’s
French-language TV network airs a film on the hunt, Les Phoques
de la Banquise; with footage from the Magdalen Islands, including
a scene in which a seal is skinned alive and its carcass left
flailing on the ice. The images of photogenic whitecoats and
dark blood on white ice bring immediate publicity the hunt. Debate
continues on the legitimacy of the footage and whether some scenes
were actually staged.
1965 Spurred by public outrage, the government implements
the Seal Protection Regulations, setting annual quotas, dates
of the hunt, controls on the methods of killing, and requiring,
for the first time, that vessels, aircraft and sealers be licensed.
1969 The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW),
dedicated to ending the commercial exploitation of seals, is
established by Brian Davies in New Brunswick. In four years,
IFAW is generating annual revenues in excess of $500,000.
1974 IFAW hires a New York advertising firm used by
Coca-Cola to co-ordinate its "Stop the Seal Hunt" campaign.
1976 Greenpeace joins the anti-sealing movement. The
major concern of animal welfare and environmental groups were
the cruelty to animals associated with the hunt and concern of
1977 Celebrity protest of the hunt takes off as French
actress Brigitte Bardot goes to the ice in Newfoundland, stirring
up anti-sealing sentiment in the French media.
As international protest intensifies, the Newfoundland provincial
government launches a global campaign in defence of the seal
1979 Activists are arrested for spraying red organic
dye on more than 200 whitecoats. In Canadian waters.
1983 The European Commission, which had been importing
close to 75 percent of Canadian seal pelts, implements a ban
on products derived from whitecoats, which is eventually extended
indefinitely. The market for sealskins collapses. Pressure from
IFA and the public leads to 570 Tesco and Safeway grocery stores
in Britain to phase out all Canadian fish products in protest
of the seal hunt.
1987 Canada bans the commercial hunt for whitecoats
Late 1980s IFAW launches seal-watching eco-tours in
Îles de la Madeleine, Que., as an economic alternative
to the hunt. It now adds $1 million a year to the islands’ economy.
1992 Moratorium is placed on the northern cod fishery.
Thought to be temporary, there were only modest gains in the
status of the stocks seven years later. As the population of
harp seals increases dramatically, some look to them as a major
predator of the recovering cod
1995 A subsidy for seal meat products is introduced
to assist in developing markets. All direct subsidies to the
sealing industry are to be eliminated after 1999.
June 1999 244,552 harp seals are killed in the spring
hunt. Only modest gains are made in the status of the cod stocks.
Newfoundland fisheries minister John Efford argues harp seals
are ravaging the cod stocks. IN its 30th year, IFAW has a record
1.8 million members and annual revenues over $60 million (U.S.).
Protests against the hunt continue.
December 1999 Quotas for 2000 kept at 275,000 seals.