Marine mammals (whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and walrus) are a vital component to the marine ecosystem. They are amazing and mysterious animals which have captured the public’s attention and imagination for centuries.
There are at least 20 species of marine mammals found in our waters seasonally or year-round. These animals come here to feed, mate and raise their young. This makes our waters an important habitat to these animals and yet we only have a general understanding of where and when they are found. For most species, we have very little information on food sources they may be utilizing, population numbers or what impacts our activities have on them. The main reason for this lack of understanding is that, for many species, very little research has been conducted. However, a flourishing whale watching industry tells us that they are regular visitors to our waters and we must protect them.
The harp seal is the basis of a traditional sealing industry in Newfoundland and the Gulf, which was well established by the early 18th century. At that time the manning of sealing stations was given as the major reason for breaking the ban on the colonization of Newfoundland. Initially seals were captured in nets set from shore, a practice which continues today in parts of Newfoundland, along the North Shore of Quebec and in southern Labrador. By the late 18th century Newfoundland fishermen owned 2 000 nets and earned half of their annual income from the sale of oil and skins.
The first step toward the development of a commercial offshore harvest was the participation in 1794 of the first wooden sailing ship to hunt seals. The schooner sealing fleet was not significant until the early years of the 19th century, but between 1825 and 1860, the heyday of the seal hunt, more than 300 schooners were sailing from St. John's and Conception Bay with crews exceeding 12 000 men. Eleven times during this period, catches of greater than 500 000 pelts were landed, the maximum being 744 000 in 1832. These catches were mainly young harp seals, but also included adults and immatures and a small number of hooded seals.
In 1863 a second advance in hunting technology occurred when steamers were used for the first time. The number of steam-powered sealing ships increased rapidly to 25 in 1880 and by 1911 all offshore sealing ships were steam-powered. The final evolution in sealing methods came in 1906 when the first steel-hulled ship, the S.S. Adventure, was fitted for the hunt.
Although the large-vessel hunt in March is well known, smaller vessels are also used to hunt seals. "Lands-men" in small boats and larger vessels up to 20 m in length (longliners) from the Magdalen Islands, the North Shore of Quebec, and Newfoundland take pups and older seals from late December to May. Harp seals are also taken in the Canadian Arctic and along the coast of west Greenland from June to August.
Despite the replacement of sailing ships with steam-powered vessels, catches of seals in the Northwest Atlantic declined substantially towards the latter part of the 19th century, averaging about 341 000 between 1863 and 1894. Beginning in 1895 harp seal catches were recorded separately and continued to decline, averaging 249 000 between 1895 and 1911, and 159 000 between 1912 and 1940.
In 1938, the large Norwegian sealing ships began to hunt the Northwest Atlantic population. Following the Second World War, during which little sealing occurred, the Norwegian fleet returned and gradually increased. By 1949 this resulted in a doubling of catching effort. Although mainly a Canadian and Norwegian industry, ships under the registry of Denmark, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union occasionally participated in the Atlantic coast hunt.
Annual catches of harp seals by ships from 1949 to 1961 averaged 185 000 young and 70 000 adults and bedlamers. In addition, the catch by landsmen from Cape Breton Island, Quebec, Newfoundland, Labrador, and West Greenland was approximately 55 000 annually. The total catch averaged 310 000 seals. Between 1961 and 197O, annual catches averaged 287 000 animals. Under quota management, introduced in 1971, harp catches for the decade 1971 - 1981 averaged 172 000 animals per year of which about 137 000 were pups. Catches in Canadian waters between 1984 and 1988, the period following the EEC ban noted earlier, have averaged about 39 000 animals. Although actual figures are not available, another 20 000 to 25 000 harp seals are still taken annually by Greenland hunters for a total of roughly 60 000 animals from the northwest Atlantic population.
The large catches of harp seals in the postwar years and the increased proportion of the catch comprised of older seals resulted in a marked decline in population size and pup production.
Although historical data are inadequate to accurately assess population size prior to 1950, it is evident that the reduction in stock size between 1950 and 1970 was approximately 50 % or from about 2.5 to 3.0 million animals in 1950 to about 1.5 million seals age one year and older in 1970.
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