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January/February 2000 issue

Seal wars  |   Natural history  |   Timeline  |   Shorts  |   Quotes
Sealing thorugh the years

pre-history |  1500s |  1700s |  1800s |  1900s

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 fishery.

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 blubber."


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 white-coated pups.

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 annihilation.

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 over-exploitation.

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 hunt

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 and bluebacks.

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.


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