Wooden Walls of Newfoundland

Seal hunting off Newfoundland in the 1880’s (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

(I am going a bit off topic here from Cape Breton News and concentrating on an industry that was and in some small measure specific to Newfoundland. Yet, it includes Cape Bretoners and always has. In fact it was not uncommon for Newfoundland Sealers to come right off our shores around the Island in the Spring of the year and recruit men and boys to go seal hunting. My grandfather, John R. Fraser, and his good friend, Peter MacKinnon, were recruited in this manner from Lowland Cove. They eventually got stuck in the ice ofF Flint Island miles off Glace Bay. After days of inactivity with no seals and no income and poor prospects they both gathered up their meager belongings and walked from their sealing ship to shore over the drift ice and from there made their way back to Cape North and to their homes at Lowland Cove a considerable trek to say the least. That was the end of their seal hunting on a sealing ship endeavour. – CAPER) 

Seal hunting, or sealing, is the personal or commercial hunting of seals. The hunt is currently practiced in five countries: Canada, where most of the world’s seal hunting takes place, as well as Namibia, the Danish region Greenland, Norway, and Russia. Canada’s largest market for seals is Norway.

Harp seal populations in the northwest Atlantic declined to approximately 2 million in the early 1970s, prompting stronger regulations. As a result the harp seal population in this area increased steadily until the mid 1990’s, and was estimated at 5.9 million (between 4.6 and 7.2 million) in 2004. Harp seals have never been considered endangered. The Marine Animal Response Society estimates the harp seal population in the world is approximately 8 million (between 6.5 and 9.5 million).

It is illegal in Canada to hunt newborn harp seals known as “whitecoats”. It is also illegal to hunt young, hooded seals (bluebacks). When the seal pups begin to molt their downy white fur at the age of 12–14 days, they are called “ragged-jacket” and can be commercially hunted. After molting, the seals are called “beaters”, named for the way they beat the water with their flippers. The hunt remains highly controversial, attracting significant media coverage and protests each year.[10] Images from past hunts have become iconic symbols for conservation, animal welfare, and animal rights advocates. In 2009, Russia banned the hunting of harp seals less than one year old.


Eskimo Family Bone Carving

Inuit seal hunting – Archeological evidence indicates that the Native Americans and First Nations People in Canada have been hunting seals for at least 4,000 years. Traditionally, when an Inuit boy killed his first seal or caribou, a feast was held. The meat was an important source of fat, protein, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and iron, and the pelts were prized for their warmth. The Inuit diet is rich in fish, whale, and seal.

The Inuit seal hunting accounts for three percent of the total hunt. The traditional Inuit seal hunting is excluded from The European Commission‘s call in 2006 for a ban on the import, export and sale of all harp and hooded seal products. The natsiq (ringed seal) have been the main staple for food, and have been used for clothing, boots, fuel for lamps, a delicacy, containers, igloo windows, and furnished harnesses for huskies. The natsiq is no longer used to this extent, but ringed seal is still an important food source for the people of Nunavut. Called nayiq by the Central Alaskan Yup’ik people, the ringed seal is also hunted and eaten in Alaska.

Eskimo Family in their Winter House

Large scale commercial seal hunting outside of Europe began with the Newfoundland seal hunt which became an annually recorded event starting in 1723. Growing out of the enormous international Grand Banks fishery, the Newfoundland hunt began with small schooner-based hunts. It was transformed in the 1870s by the arrival of large steam-powered sealing vessels such as the steam barquentines Bear and Terra Nova which could smash through ice packs to the heart of large seal herds. These large and expensive ships required major capital investments from British and Newfoundland firms and shifted the industry from merchants in small outports to companies based in St. John’s, Newfoundland. By the late 19th century, sealing had become the second most important industry in Newfoundland, second only to cod fishing. The seal hunt provided critical winter wages for fishermen but remained harsh and dangerous work, marked by major sealing disasters which claimed hundreds of lives such as the loss the 1914 Newfoundland Sealing Disaster involving the SS Southern Cross, the SS Newfoundland and SS Stephano.[16] After World War II, the Newfoundland Hunt shifted to smaller motor fishing vessels, again based from outports around Newfoundland and Labrador. In 2007 the commercial seal hunt dividend contributed about $6 million to the Newfoundland GDP, a fraction of the industry’s former importance.

Today, commercial sealing is conducted by only five nations: Canada, Greenland, Namibia, Norway, and Russia. The United States, which had been heavily involved in the sealing industry, now maintains a complete ban on the commercial hunting of marine mammals, with the exception of indigenous peoples who are allowed to hunt a small number of seals each year.

Long Liner Present Day Seal Hunting

In regards to the Canadian commercial seal hunt, the majority of the hunters initiate the kill using a firearm. 90% of sealers on the ice floes of the Front (east of Newfoundland), where the majority of the hunt occurs, use firearms.


A hakapikAn older and more traditional method of killing seals is with a hakapik: a heavy wooden club with a hammer head and metal hook on the end. The hakapik is used because of its efficiency; the animal can be killed quickly and humanely without damage to its pelt. The hammer head is used to crush the seals thin skull, while the hook is used to move the carcass. Canadian sealing regulations describe the dimensions of the clubs and the hakapiks, and caliber of the rifles and minimum bullet velocity, that can be used. They state that: “Every person who strikes a seal with a club or hakapik shall strike the seal on the forehead until its skull has been crushed,” and that “No person shall commence to skin or bleed a seal until the seal is dead,” which occurs when it “has a glassy-eyed, staring appearance and exhibits no blinking reflex when its eye is touched while it is in a relaxed condition.” Reportedly, in one study, three out of eight times, the animal was not rendered either dead or unconscious by shooting, and the hunters will then kill the seal using a hakapik or other club of a type that is sanctioned by the governing authority.

Former Governor General – Eating Raw Seal Heart

Products made from seals –  Seal skins have been used by aboriginal people for millennia to make waterproof jackets and boots, and seal fur to make fur coats. Pelts account for over half the processed value of a seal, selling at over C$100 each as of 2006

Seal meat is an important source of food for residents of small coastal communities. Meat is sold to the Asian pet food market; in 2004, only Taiwan and South Korea purchased seal meat from Canada.  The seal blubber is used to make seal oil, which is marketed as a fish oil supplement. In 2001, two percent of Canada’s raw seal oil was processed and sold in Canadian health stores. There has been virtually no market for seal organs since 1998.

In 2005, three companies exported seal skin: Rieber in Norway, Atlantic Marine in Canada and Great Greenland in Greenland. Their clients were earlier French fashion houses and fur makers in Europe, but today the fur is mainly exported to Russia and China.

In Canada, the season for the commercial hunt of harp seal is from November 15 to May 15.[40] Most sealing occurs in late March in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and during the first or second week of April off Newfoundland, in an area known as “The Front.” This peak spring period is generally what is referred to as the “Canadian Seal Hunt”.

In 2003, the three-year harp seal quota granted by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was increased to a maximum of 975,000 animals per three years, with a maximum of 350,000 animals in any two consecutive years.[40] In 2006, 325,000 harp seals, as well as 10,000 hooded seals and 10,400 grey seals were killed. An additional 10,000 animals were allocated for hunting by Aboriginal peoples. The current Northwest Atlantic harp seal population is estimated at 5.6 million animals. The seals are killed in two ways: they are either shot or struck on the head with a hakapik, which is a spiked club similar to an axe pick.

Captain Bartlett – Seal Hunting Captain

Although around 70 percent of Canadian seals killed are killed on “The Front,” private monitors focus on the St. Lawrence hunt, because of its more convenient location. The 2006 St. Lawrence leg of the hunt was officially closed on Apr. 3, 2006. Sealers had exceeded the quota by 1,000 animals by the time the hunt was closed. On March 26, 2007 the Newfoundland and Labrador government launched a seal hunt website.

Warm winters in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have led to thinner and more unstable ice there. In 2007, Canada’s federal fisheries ministry reported that while the pups are born on the ice as usual, the ice floes have started to break up before the pups learn to swim, causing the pups to drown. Canada reduced the 2007 quota by 20%, because overflights showed large numbers of seal pups were lost to thin and melting ice. However in southern Labrador and off Newfoundland’s northeast coast, there was extra heavy ice in 2007, and the coast guard estimated that as many as 100 vessels were trapped in ice simultaneously.

Canadian Coast Guard Karlak – Former Sealer

The 2010 winter was unusually warm, with little ice forming in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in February and March, when harp seals give birth to their pups on ice floes. Around the Gulf, harp seals arrived in late winter to give birth on near-shore ice and even on beaches rather than on their usual whelping grounds: sturdy sea ice. Also, seal pups born elsewhere began floating to shore on small, shrinking pieces of ice. Many others stayed too far north, out of reach of all but the most determined hunters. Environment Canada, the weather forecasting agency, reported that the ice was at the lowest level on record.


Regulations – The Fisheries Act established “Seal Protection Regulations” in the mid-1960s. The regulations were combined with other Canadian marine mammals regulations in 1993, to form the “Marine Mammal Regulations“. In addition to describing the use of the rifle and hakapik , the regulations state that every person “who fishes for seals for personal or commercial use shall land the pelt or the carcass of the seal.” The commercial hunting of infant harp seals (whitecoats) and infant hooded seals (bluebacks) was banned in 1987 under pressure from animal rights groups. Now seals may only be killed once they have started molting (from 12 to 15 days of age) as this coincides with the time when they are abandoned by their mothers.


Canada’s biggest market for seal pelts is Norway. Carino Limited is one of Newfoundland’s largest seal pelt producers.. Canada sold pelts to eleven countries in 2004. The next largest were Germany, Greenland, and China/Hong Kong. Other importers were Finland, Denmark, France, Greece, South Korea, and Russia. Asia remains the principal market for seal meat exports. One of Canada’s market access priorities for 2002 was to “continue to press Korean authorities to obtain the necessary approvals for the sale of seal meat for human consumption in Korea.” Canadian and Korean officials agreed in 2003 on specific Korean import requirements for seal meat. For 2004, only Taiwan and South Korea purchased seal meat from Canada.

“Captain Bartlett at the Wheel – Seals Dead Ahead”

Canadian seal product exports reached $18 million (CAD) in 2006. Of this, $5.4 million went to the EU. In 2009 the European Union banned all seal imports, shrinking the market. Where pelts once sold for more than $100, they now fetch $8 to $15 each.

(Like the Newfoundlanders themselves say, “The arse is out of er bye”.)

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