Has a history, like whaling, that stretches back into prehistory; images of seals (see marine mammals) appear in Palaeolithic rock art. It is still practised by Inuits today for whom seals are a key resource for pelts, food, and oil. Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) are also hunted for their ivory, although trade in the ivory is banned under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). More bizarre seal products are their penile bones, which have a market as aphrodisiacs in Asia. Breeding harp seals (Phoca groenlandica) and hooded seals (Cystophora cristata) are hunted on the pack ice in the North Atlantic particularly in the Gulf of St Lawrence. These seals breed on ice and have white-coated pups whose pelts were in high demand by the fur trade. The scenes of brutal clubbing of cubs and blood-stained ice floes excited strong protests from animal rights activists and the killing of cubs was banned in the St Lawrence in 1987. However, in 2004 the Canadian government announced a cull of 350,000 harp seals; the rationalization of this extreme measure is to protect the local fish stocks.
Fur seals (Arctocephalus and Callorhinus species) were heavily exploited during the 17th and 18th centuries, when many of the populations around the North Pacific, South Africa, and Antarctica were almost driven to extinction. In 1911 the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention banned the killing of northern fur seals at sea and restricted killing on land to immature males. Fur seal pelts became very valuable commodities, but wearing fur went out of fashion, so even though the convention lapsed in 1984, no further sealing has taken place on the Pribilof Islands in the north-east Pacific, home to the largest breeding colonies of northern fur seals. In the southern hemisphere the exploitation was so intense that for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries there were few if any sightings of fur seals around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the South Atlantic. They began to be seen regularly again in the post-war years, and now the population on South Georgia alone is estimated to be about 4 million.
Elephant seals (Mirounga sp.) were very heavily exploited, mostly for their blubber. At the beginning of the 20th century the population of northern elephant seals in the North Pacific had been reduced to under a thousand and restricted to the Mexican Isla de Guadalupe. Again, once given protection the population has recovered to about 100,000 and has spread up the coast of California. However, it is possible that a genetic bottleneck created by the reduction of the population will have left the animal with insufficient genetic diversity to cope with future environmental changes or infectious epidemics. The southern elephant seal was still being exploited as late as 1964 on South Georgia, but in common with all Southern Ocean seals south of 60° S. is now protected under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals.
M. V. Angel
Subjects: Maritime History — History of the Americas.