247. Newfoundland's cod fishery is world-famous and has been the mainstay of the Island since it first came to be permanently settled. For many years the whale and seal fisheries closely rivalled it in importance, but now the whale fishery has almost entirely ceased* and the seal fishery has fallen off; in the present year only 6 ships with a complement of 1,122 men went to the seal fishery, as against 323 ships manned by over 10,000 men in 1851. Apart from the seal and cod, the waters of Newfoundland yield an abundant harvest of fish which are in commercial demand, notably salmon and lobster; while plentiful supplies of herring and caplin provide bait for the cod fishery. Formerly there was a considerable export of herring, but in recent years the popular demand has fallen off. Both herring and caplin, however, are probably capable of further commercial exploitation. Smelts, halibut, haddock, and turbot are also caught. Indeed, the fisheries of the Island, including for this purpose the deep sea fishery on the Banks†, mostly 100-150 miles off shore, contain nearly all the varieties of fish found in the colder waters of the northern hemisphere, and the consistency of yield, measured by the total annual catch on all parts of the coast over a long period of years, is unsurpassed in any country in the world. Full advantage has not yet been taken of these resources, and there is little doubt that, by the introduction of modern methods of catching, curing and marketing, by the development of subsidiary products, the fisheries could become an increasing source of wealth to the Island.

Torbay Hauling Caplin, Torbay, n.d.
Photo by Holloway. From the album of photographs furnished to the Newfoundland Royal Commission, August 1933. Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives (Coll-207), Memorial University of Newfoundland Library, St. John's, Newfoundland.
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The Seal Fishery.

  248. Though the seal fishery is now of little economic importance, it has occupied such a prominent place in the past and has established such a hold on the imagination of the people that we feel bound to make a brief reference to it. The fishery takes place in the early spring and is thus the first fishery of the year. It is conducted by locally-owned steam vessels specially built for cutting their way through the ice. Some 150-200 men are carried on each vessel, the men outfitted by the owners and receiving, in lieu of wages, a bonus proportionate to the value of the catch. The seals are hunted over the ice to the north-est of Newfoundland and in the Straits of Belle Isle, and the vessels are usually away six weeks or two months. The fishery has gone on since 1742, and formerly attracted large numbers of schooners from all over the Island. Steam was first used in the fishery in 1864, and the sailing vessel has since been entirely displaced. Since the middle of the last century, when about 700,000 skins were brought in yearly, the fishery has gradually decreased in importance and the number of skins obtained has not exceeded 250,000 in any year since 1919. As will be seen from the following figures, seal oil and skins now form only a small proportion of the Island's total exports.

  No. of
  No. of
Total value of seal oil and seal skins exported  $
Percentage of Island's total exports.
1919 .................
1920 .................
1921 .................
1922 .................
1923 .................
1924 .................
1925 .................
1926 .................
1927 .................
1928 .................
1929 .................
1930 .................
1931 .................
1932 .................
1933 .................

  249. The fishery this year exceeded expectations, and the earnings thus gained by the fishermen gave a stimulus to local business at a time when it was badly needed. A good seal fishery is said to presage a good cod-fishery, but on this occasion, as will be seen later, the high hopes with which the Island entered on the cod-fishery have only partially been fulfilled.

  250. The seals hunted are of two species, harp seals and hood seals. The latter herd on the seaward side of the former, and harp seals therefore form the bulk of the catch. The decline in the numbers caught has given rise to many speculations as to the future of the fishery. Some sealers hold that there are annually about 200,000 young of harp (whitecoats) on the ice; others, that the herds are inexhaustible. The latter maintain that the sealing vessels only come into contact with small herds and that there is a central or main herd somewhere out of reach. Experimental flights by a "spotting" aeroplane have failed to establish the existence of such a main herd. It is sometimes urged that too high a proportion of young seals is killed. These cannot escape and are easily clubbed; while the older seals, more difficult of approach, are shot with rifles. A close season of three years has been suggested for the scarcer hood seals.

  251. These and similar questions demand more scientific study than has yet been given to them. If there exists a main herd of seals, then the fishery should be more actively conducted. Alternatively, if investigation proves that the supply is being depleted, then a close season for a period of years should be instituted. The Government has no funds available for the purpose of such an investigation, but we suggest that conditions in the seal herds might prove a suitable subject of exploration by an expedition such as those periodically organised by the Universities in the United Kingdom and the United States for scientific enquiries in northern latitudes. Contributions to such an expedition would doubtless be forthcoming from the mercantile firms which engage in the fishery.

  * In 1930, the catch amounted to 319 whales, resulting in 13,200 barrels of whale oil, and 11,560 sacks of guano. Appendix to Journal of House of Assembly, Newfoundland, 1931 (Board of Trade Report), p. 534.
  † See para. 253.

Image description updated May, 2004.

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