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 History of Grey Seals in Atlantic Canada

The following is excerpted from "Sea of Slaughter" (1984) by Farley Mowat,
and is reproduced here with permission:

Dotars and Horseheads continued...

Abundant as they must have been along the Atlantic coast, horeseheads were even more so in the Gulf of St. Lawrence where they provided a year-round fishery for French settlers who sequesterd ancient Indian sealing places for their own use. The memory of one such is still preserved in the Micmac name Ashnotogun, The Place We Bar The Passage (in order to catch seals).

Charlevoix provides a description of this fishery. "It is the custom of this animal to enter the rivers with the rising tide. When the fisherman have found out such rivers, to which great numbers of seals resort, they enclose them with stakes and nets leaving only a small opening so that when the tide goes out the fishes remain a-dry, and are easily dispatched...I have been told of a sailor who having one day surprised a vast herd of them...with him comrades killed to the number of nine hundred of them."

By the mid-seventheenth century, settlers in New France had improved on the Indian methods and were building seal weirs in the mighty St.Lawrence itself, siting them at strategic points where horseheads passed close to shore. The returns from this fishery were so great that possession of a site was almost as good as being able to coin one's own currency.

However, by the turn of the century unbridled slaughter on the river had so depleted the horseheads there that sealers were forced to seek new killiing grounds. Some pressed eastward along the north shore of the Gulf. A memoir of a reconnaissance of this Cote du Nord conducted in 1705 by the Sieur de Courtemanche, from Anticosti Island almost to Belle Isle Straight, describes what was a still a virgin coast insofar as non-native sealers were concerned. As such, the memoir provides us with some rare glimpses of the horsehead nation in its original state: "[Washikuti Bay], equally rich as other places in seals. [Caribou River], needless to repeat seals... are very abundant at this place. [Etamamu River], the seals are in greater abundance than any other place previously referred to. [Netagamu River], there is such an abundance of seals that herds of them may be seen on the points of the islands as well as the rocks. [From there to Grand Mescatina], all the islands abound with seals. [At Ha Ha Bay], I killed two hundred seals with muskets in two days."

The fact that this journey was made in the summer, taken together with the habits of the animals described, makes it certain that these were not harp or hood seal, but horseheads with, no doubt, an admixture of dotars. In 1750, they must have swarmed upon the north shore of the Gulf in the tens of thousands.

Together with the walrus, horseheads had a number of special rallying places where enormous aggregations gathered during the summer months. These included some of the beaches near Cape Cod together with Sable, Miquelon, Miscou, Prince Edward, and the Magdalen Islands, all of which possessed shoal lagoons, sandy beaches, and rich, adjacent fishing grounds. Early Europeans viewed such massive concentrations as God-given reservoris of oil wealth and treated them accordingly. At first the walrus bore the brunt of the assault but as they were exterminated at rookery after rookery in the southern portion of their range, horseheads replaced in the trypots until, by the 1750, most of the summer gatherings of the big seals had been so savagely depleted as to leave only vestiges of their former selves.

There were some exceptions. Sable Island's scimitat of snad was too distant and dangerous to be easily reached in a small craft usd by most sealers, and so its great central lagoon (which was then still open to the sea) was so described as still containing a "multitude" of seals in the 1750's. Miscou Island, where as many as a hundred Micmac families had gathered every autumn since antiquity to obtain their winter supply of seal meat and fat, still supported a respectable horsehead population. However, the largest remaining aggregation was probably on the Magdalens.

Throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century, the demand for train oil kept growing and the consequence destruction of walrus and whales increased the burden on the seals of providing oil. By the 1780s, horseheads were being so sought after that a Nova Scotian named Jesse Lawrence built a permanent factory on Sable Island so he and his men could seal during the pupping season when foul weather frequently prevented ships from landing there. Lawrence was not long left to enjoy this profitable enterprise in peace. The long-nosed merchants of Massachusetts got wind of it and dispatched schooners to Sable as soon as spring weather would permit. The Yankee crews not only killed all the seals they could find, they looted Lawrence's station, pirated the store of ooils and hides he had accumulated during the winter, and eventually drove him off the island.

By 1829, according to Thomas Haliburton, lightkeepers and lifesavers had all become keen sealers, and the iisland had ceased to be a summer rendezvous for horseheads, "although the seals still resort to the island...for the purpose of whelping." Haliburton graphically describes how the keppers killed adults on the whelping ground. "Each person is armed with a club 5 or 6 feet in length... the butt end being transfixed with a piece of steel, one end in which is shaped like a spike, and the other formed into a blade...the party rushes in between the seals and the water and commences the attack...each man selects one and strikes it on the head several blows with the steel spike. He then applies the blade in the same manner and repeats the blows until the animal is brought to the ground...When driven off the [the nusery beaches]...they disappear until the ensuing year."

The treatment of horseheads on the Magdalens followed much the same pattern; except that those islands had long since been settled by fishing folk who, having been brought there to hunt walrus, turned easily to slaughtering seals. By 1790, each of the several communities had its own tryworks and the seal hunt had become the islanders' most lucrative occupation. They also killed the migratory harp and hood seals when they could get them, and dotars too; however, through many decades, the Magdalen seal fishery was mainly based on horseheads, which could be killed in quantity year-round in the logoons and on the beaches. There was an additional winter slaughter at the rookeries, where the pups and females were butchered so ruthlessly that soon only the off lying and frequently unapproachable Bird Rocks and Deadman Island remained of the many former whelping grounds.

By early in the 1800s, oil from a large horsehead was worth $7 or $8-a good weeks pay for those times-and, in consequence, the hunt for them was becoming ever more intense. In a single year of1848, 21,000 gallons of seal oil, almost all of it made from horseheads, ws shipped out of the Magdalens alone.

By the 1860s, the species had been extrirpated from much of its former range. The ferocious law of supply and demand was having its baleful effect-the rarer the animals became, the hotly they were harried, and the more their oil was worth. Oil from an average-sized horsehead on the Cote du Nord in 1886 was worth $11 to $12, and the skin was an additional $1.50.

There is little doubt that the horsehead woulld have followed the walrus into extinction on the north eastern seaboard had it not been supplanted by the unfortunate harp seal as the prime prey of the oilers. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the slaughter of the later species had come to engross the efforts of all except a scattering of individual sealers. Horseheads were still killed when opportunity offered, but the few survivors had by then become so wary and were so dispersed that active pursuit of them was hardly worthwhile. So, as the twentieth century began, they faded into fortunate obscurity.

The question of how many horseheads exisited at first European contact cannot be answered with any degree of certainty. Nevertheless, a searching examination of all the sources-maps, charts, written accounts, and the memories of old maritimers-convinces me that something over 200 whelping rookeries originally exisited between Cape Hatteras in the south and Hamiliton Inlet on the Labrador coast and that the total horsehead population totalled between 750,000 and 1,000,000. Some of these rookeries were still producing 2,000 pups a year as late as the 1850s, and it was largely due to their systematic despoliation that the horsehead so nearly pereshed, a fact that has not been lost on the new breed of "natural resource managers" who now hold the ultimate fate of the horsehead in their hands.

During the early centuries of the European invasion, the little dotar was luckier than its large relative. Because of its small size, low oil, and more scattered distribution, it escaped major commerical exploitation. But it did not go unscathed. As more and more Europeans came to fish and live along the Atlantic coast, the dotar was increasingly hunted to provide food, household oil, and skins for boots and clothing. Futhermore it suffered the eventually lose of many of the coves and inlets where it once bred in relative security. Finally, when train soared to golden values, fisherman and small-scale sealers began hunting it for cash. In 1895, for example, a certain Captaain Farquhar took a crew to Sable Island where, during a summer-long massacre, he so decimated the dotars there that the species virtually disappeared from Sable for a decade.

Dotars still occupied, if sparsely, most of their original range when the twentieth century began. By then, fossil oil gushing from wells had begun replacing train for most industrial purposes and an ensuing drop in the value of seal oil promised a new lease on life, not only to the dotars, but to the few horsehead survivors as well.

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