The Landsmen Sealing Operation
In order to capture harp seals from shore, the early inhabitants of
northeastern Newfoundland and southern Labrador developed two principal
techniques - the use of seal (or shoal) nets and seal traps (or frames).
As early as 1818, for example, the master of a British naval vessel
on fishery patrol along the Labrador coast provided a detailed account
of modifications made to a single seal net and the development of the seal
trap. The traps were more commonly used in the more northerly regions where
the seals travelled closer to shore in late fall and early winter.
Labrador Coast Seal Trap, 1818.
Reproduced by permission of C. W. Sanger © 1998, after E. Chappell, Voyage of His Majesty's
ship Rosamond to Newfoundland and the southern coast of Labrador (London: J. Mawman, 1818).
Whole communities - men, women and children, all with fixed responsibilities
- worked together to ensure the capture of the migrating herds. Although harp
seals do not follow the shore line with the same intensity
and regularity as they approach the more southerly areas of the island,
they could still be caught in specially constructed nets. This procedure
was used well into the twentieth century.
Seals could thus be captured from land bases with relatively little
capital investment in a fashion that neither required the participants
to leave home for extensive periods, nor forced them to face the risks associated
with the larger-scale offshore seal fishery. The landsmen operation, carried
on in the fall and early winter, added a valuable commercial opportunity
to the seasonal round of activities.
The Vessel Operation
Towards the end of the 18th century, merchants and investors in
St. John's and the larger centres in Conception Bay began to support voyages
in sailing vessels each spring in search of the newly formed whelping patches.
By 1800 this large-scale commercial venture was well established.
The first sealing vessels of any real substance were fishing schooners
designed for the fledgling Labrador cod fishery.
The success of these two complementary activities appears to have been
rapid, as demonstrated by the increase in the number of skins (pelts) exported:
from less than 5,000 in 1793 to 81,000 in 1805, 281,000 in 1819 and 687,000,
the highest number ever reported, in 1831.
Newfoundland Seal Fishery.
A summary of vessels, crews, exports, and prices (1800-1899).
Data: B. C. Bursey, J. K. Hiller, S. Ryan, C. W. Sanger. Graph
reproduced by permission of C. W. Sanger © 1998.
The growing importance of the seal fishery and its economic impact throughout
the first half of the 19th century is indicated in the writings of
Rev. W. Wilson. In 1866 he noted that the sealing vessels averaged from
"fifty to one hundred tons, and were manned with crews of from twenty-five
to forty men; while the interest of every individual to the north of St.
John's, from the richest to the poorest, was so interwoven with it, that
its prosecution and results should cause more speculation, more anxiety,
more excitement and solicitude, than perhaps does any single branch of
business in any part of the world" (Wilson 276).
During the latter half of the 19th century the industry began
to contract, partly because of a decline in the seal population caused
by unregulated harvesting and the introduction of steamers.
After 1863 the owners and outfitters of the less efficient sailing vessels
realized that they could not compete. Higher financial investments were
required and the smaller outport merchants and entrepreneurs were gradually
displaced. St. John's emerged as the major residential centre for vessel
owners. Fewer men and ships participated. The northern boundary of the
sealing region shifted southwards to exclude the traditional sealing areas
along the northeast coast.
Newfoundland Sealing Regions 1863-1875, 1876-1899.
Reproduced by permission of C. W. Sanger © 1998.
By the late 1800s new forces were at work within the industry. Steamer
owners hired experienced sealing masters from the more northerly communities
to command their vessels; there was an attempt to have older ships sail
for the ice from outports closer to the seal herd; and a more efficient
transportation system (railway) enabled sealers from Bonavista and Trinity
Bay settlements to obtain berths on the St. John's steamers. These developments
resulted in the sealing region spreading northwards again to include the
growing Bonavista Bay North communities located between Greenspond and
Newtown. By the beginning of the 20th century there existed two sealing
regions, one centered in Bonavista Bay North and the other in St. John's.
Sealing steamer S.S. Kite in the ice floes off northeastern
Newfoundland, n.d. Photo by William Howe Greene. From William Howe Greene,
The Wooden Walls Among the Ice Floes. (London: Hutchinson & Co.
Ltd., 1933), 27.
In the days of the sailing vessel, virtually every major settlement
within the sealing region produced seal oil and prepared hides. These domestic
industries declined with the introduction of steamers. Profits were controlled
by a few St. John's firms. Furthermore, as the number of sealers declined
and the population of the northeast coast increased, the seal fishery,
which had made such a significant contribution to the growth of Newfoundland's
economy throughout the 19th century, diminished greatly in importance.
At mid-century, seal products accounted for roughly one-quarter of the
island's exports; 50 years later this had dropped to less than 10 per cent.
Even on the northeast coast sealing had become a relatively minor landsmen
activity in the traditional annual round.
© 1998, C.W. Sanger