SEALING was accepted for centuries as an accepted means of extracting wealth from the sea. Sealing in sub-arctic waters of the North Atlantic began in connection with whaling early in the seventeenth century and developed into a separate occupation late in the eighteenth century. The hunting of the small hair seals, which include the harp and hooded seals, became an important commercial activity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Nonetheless, their numbers, as a result of reckless exploitation, have steadily declined. The seals of Antarctic waters, mainly the southern elephant and South American fur seal, were nearly exterminated during the nineteenth century by hunters but began to recover when regulations were introduced in 1881. In 1972 twelve nations signed a treaty giving complete protection to some varieties of seals and restricting the killing of others.
American sealing interests have traditionally centered on the Pribilof Islands of Saint Paul and Saint George in the Bering Sea. After Earth Day in 1970, however, U.S. citizens began to see sealing as cruel and unnecessary. Environmental groups that opposed sealing effectively used the media to gain support in the United States, where few people earned their livings from the pursuit. Sealing, nevertheless, had long been an important livelihood on the northeast and northwest coasts of North America, where Aleuts harvested adolescent male fur seals for the fashion industry. In 1984 the government discontinued the harvest when protests against sealing and the fur industry intensified.
The harvesting of harp seal pups on the other side of the American subcontinent also created a storm of protest. Young harp seals have beautiful, almost pure white coats that serve as excellent camouflage on ice floes against natural predators. Each spring, fishermen from Newfoundland seeking to supplement their meager incomes headed out to the ice floes to gather seal pelts, which involved clubbing the animal on the head and removing the skin. The killing spawned criticism from environmentalists, who noted that furs were luxury items and that continued harvesting of the young threatened the species. Television crews filmed the appalling scenes of slaughter. Although harvesting of young seals was a minor problem in the long list of environmental crises facing the global community, the undeniable appeal of baby mammals made it a headline issue that fueled the growth of the environmental movement and the animal rights movement.
Busch, Briton Cooper. The War against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery. Kingston, Ontario, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1985.
Lavinge, D. M., and Kit M. Kovacs. Harps and Hoods: Ice-breeding Seals of the Northwest Atlantic. Waterloo, Ontario, Canada: University of Waterloo Press, 1988.
Pelly, David F. Sacred Hunt: A Portrait of the Relationship between Seals and Inuit. Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2001.