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The seal hunt, a dying industry

The Story

The Atlantic seal hunt has fallen off since its peak in 1857. That year, almost 400 vessels from Newfoundland carrying nearly 14,000 men sailed out to the floes on the region's northeast coast. But a century later demand for sealskins has dropped and just a handful of local ships are heading to the ice each year. When they do, they face competition from efficient foreign crews. CBC's The Canadian Scene traces the industry from boom to near-bust.

Medium: Radio
Program: Canadian Scene
Broadcast Date: March 14, 1958
Narrator: Doug Brophy
Duration: 14:21

Did You know?

• Native people hunted seals thousands of years ago in what is now Labrador. Sealskins became clothing and tent coverings, seal oil was used in soapstone lamps, and seal meat was a dietary staple.
• Settlers from New France began hunting seals in Labrador in the late 17th century. It's believed they taught their techniques to the British, whose governor in Newfoundland took over the region in 1763. Two years later the first British sealing post was established in Labrador.

• The post in Labrador, and others at Twillingate and Bonavista Bay on the island of Newfoundland, produced seal oil for export to Britain. In the 1770s the average yearly value of exported oil was almost £10,000 - about $1.7 million in 2003 Canadian dollars.
• Seal oil was used as fuel for lamps, in soapmaking, as a lubricant and for cooking.

• Until the 1790s, seals were mostly caught in nets anchored in channels or between islands. Sealing season was in December, when the seals' southward migration brought them within range of land-based hunters.
• Hunters began using boats at the end of the 18th century with three- or four-man crews in shallops. These 10-metre boats could be sailed or rowed into the spring sea ice, where hunters would shoot seals and haul the carcasses aboard.

• Through the early 19th century, schooners took crews of up to 50 men to the ice. Sealers would travel the floes on foot and kill seals using a gaff - a long pole with a hook on the end.
• It is estimated that at least 18 million seals were taken between 1800 and 1860. The single biggest year was 1831, when 687,000 were killed.
• The steamship era in Newfoundland began in the latter third of the 19th century. Steamers were faster, nimbler and more efficient than schooners, and carried crews of up to 200 men.

• The Newfoundland seal hunt almost disappeared during the Second World War, when sealing steamers were called into war service. In 1941 there were fewer than 1,000 men in the hunt, the lowest number since 1932.
• The decline continued in the 1950s. Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949, and with that came social benefits that made sealing less necessary for economic survival.

• As sealing firms in Newfoundland withdrew from the seal hunt, companies based in Nova Scotia and Norway filled the void by sending their boats to the ice. In 1954 there were more Nova Scotian ships than those from Newfoundland, and by the end of the 1950s there were more ships from Norway than Nova Scotia and Newfoundland combined.


Pelts, Pups and Protest: The Atlantic Seal Hunt more