Long before there was an organized seal hunt early migratory fisherman began hunting the harp seal during the
1500's and the indigenous peoples hunted the harp seal as long as 4000 years ago. The European fisherman were
the first to hunt the seals for economic purposes.
By the 1600's early settlers began to develop techniques to hunt the seals, the first of which was through the use of
nets. The settlers would set the nets and anchor them to the shore where the migrating seals would become
ensnared. The use of seal nets eventually progressed into the use of seal traps which were still nets but with
some modifications to make them more effective. This became known as the landsman seal fishery and was carried
on into the 1800's. The seals provided these early settlers with meat during a time of year when they would be
primarily surviving off of stored foods. In the later years of the seal hunt this was transformed from food
sustenance to economic sustenance.
By the early 1700's the hunt was extended by using boats and guns with 1723 marking the first time the hunt is
recorded as an annual organized occurrence. During this time seal oil is highly valued with records of exports
as far back as 1749. The oil is shipped back to England to be used as lamp oil, cooking oil, in soap and used
in the process of leather treatment.
Fisherman began to use schooners in 1794 which marks the dawn of the annual journey to the ice flows.
By this time the seal fishery is the second largest industry in Newfoundland and accounts for 30% of exports.
The use of schooners also marks the dawn of the seal hunt as a true industry with merchants and companies
providing and supporting the schooners.
The 1800's saw the seal fishery deeply engrained into Newfoundland culture and tradition. With
over 75 years of annual hunts and Newfoundlanders migrating from all over the island to St. John's in hopes of getting a
berth on one of the schooners heading out to the pack ice.
The sealing industry in Newfoundland peaks over a period between roughly 1825 - 1860. Annual catches are
recorded as high as 744,000 and the fleet soared as high as 300 vessels. Like many industries of the day the
seal herds could not sustain such flagrant abuse.
By 1863 steam ships are brought in as the cutting edge technology. With steam on their side annual catches
begin to increase to the 400,000 range in the 1870's. This also marks the end of the small merchant
involvement. No longer could they carry the expenses involved to keep up with the wealthier merchants.
Many of these advances were not necessarily driven by a need to harvest more seals but more out of a need to
better cope with the environment in which the sealer had to forage. Large expanses of pack ice which stretch
for miles can loosen to allow a ship entry but, with little warning, tighten its grip and crush a wooden ship
like a twig in an ice storm. Even today this ice can trap large oil tankers that remain helpless until set free
by ice breakers.