At about the same time as salmon canners on the Fraser River were opening markets for coastal sockeye, other maritime entrepreneurs based in Victoria were embarking on a hunt for a more elusive prey, the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus). This itinerant species of eared seal migrates in a great loop across the North Pacific each year between its breeding grounds in the Bering Sea and the coast of southern California. The route back north leads past the outer coast of BC where the seals could be counted on to visit shallow areas like the LaPerouse Bank, about fifty kilometres off Clayoquot Sound, to feed on fish, squid and other marine life. Indigenous people used to paddle their canoes offshore and hunt the feeding migrants with shell-tipped spears.
There were probably three million of these hulking creatures before Russian sealers discovered their rookeries in 1786 and began harvesting them without restriction. After Alaska became American territory in 1867, the land-based hunt continued under the auspices of a commercial consortium. Skins were treated and shipped to auction houses in England where they were sold to manufacturers of coats and other items of clothing. It was a rapacious, but immensely profitable, enterprise; one authority calculates that the consortium earned after-expense profits of a million dollars a year.
During the 1870s a pelagic, or sea-going, fur seal hunt developed, involving a fleet of schooners based in Victoria. Though Whites took part in the hunt, usually as ships’ officers and crew, the captains hired Aboriginal hunters – mainly Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth -- collecting them from their coastal villages on the way to the off-shore grounds. Aboriginal hunters preferred to use spears to kill the seals, while White hunters used rifles or shotguns. The pelagic hunt was like shooting fish in a barrel. The seals fed at night and during the day they slept on the surface, making easy targets for hunters who drifted down on their prey. Yet because the carcasses tended to sink before they could be retrieved, the hunt was tremendously wasteful. Some estimates were as high as five to ten corpses lost for every one successfully hauled into a boat. Not only that, but so many of the migrant seals were pregnant females that to kill one was to take two lives and deplete the future of the entire herd.
The hunt was a dangerous way to make a living. In heavy weather, boats often became separated from their mother vessel and many were lost. Max Lohbrunner, one of the masters, described the arduous slog that made up a sealer’s day: “...we were out anywhere from twelve to twenty hours a day, quite often longer than that, pulling and sailing as much as 90 to 100 miles some days looking for seal, with the schooner following the boats if the weather was clear and if it became foggy, the schooner hove to but the boats still kept on hunting.” Peter Murray, in his history of the sealing, tells the tragic story of the Active, a schooner owned by the Nuu-chah-nulth with a crew of twenty-four Tla-o-qui-aht from Kelsemat on Vargas Island and five whites. In 1887 the vessel went down in a spring gale off Cape Flattery and everyone on board drowned. Having lost virtually their entire young adult male population, the villagers abandoned Kelsemat in despair.
Hunters were paid for each seal landed, usually from two to five dollars a pelt. When they got lost, or failed to find any seals, or a carcass sank, they received nothing. Often they took most of their earnings in advances of clothing and tobacco from the ship’s stores and at the end of the voyage had nothing to show for their efforts. Nonetheless, Rolf Knight estimates that the seal hunt, so long as it lasted, was the main source of cash income for many Nuu-chah-nulth communities. It was certainly a shot in the arm for Victoria, which needed one following the ebbing of the gold rush. The sealing fleet, which reached seventy vessels in 1891, provided jobs for sailors and stevedores, and thirsty crews for the quayside hotels and saloons. The schooners required boats, sails and rigging, and supplies for the lengthy voyages northward. A town of less than four thousand inhabitants in 1870, Victoria became for a brief period “the world’s premier sealing port”.
As befits an unregulated and perilous trade, the captains who engaged in sealing were a wild, venturesome group. Typical was James D. Warren, who arrived on the coast from his native Prince Edward Island as a twenty-one-year-old freebooter in 1858, obtained his own sloop and began trading in Clayoquot Sound. Within a few years he was sailing as far north as the Nass River in search of furs. Like most independent traders, Warren lubricated his business with liquor and it got him into a fair amount of trouble. In 1867 he was fined and jailed for selling rum and gin on the Nass and the next year a party of armed Natives attacked his sloop in Queen Charlotte Sound, presumably in retaliation for some provocation. Warren and his men fought free of the attackers, killing fifteen of them in the skirmish. He was arrested in Victoria on charges arising from the incident but the case did not proceed.
Warren segued into the sealing trade in 1869 when he loaded up his schooner with Nuu-chah-nulth hunters and headed offshore to take fur seals, making him a pioneer in the pelagic hunt. Two years later he formed a partnership with Joseph Boscowitz, who managed several coastal trading posts and owned a pair of sealing schooners. Together the two men built up a fleet of eight schooners, some of them steam-powered, the largest number of any of the Victoria-based sealers.
By the mid-1880s it was becoming clear that this wasteful pelagic hunt was devastating the fur seal population. First to react were the American sealers who owned rights to the land-based hunt. They lobbied their government to ban pelagic sealers from Alaskan waters, and in the summer of 1886 an US revenue cutter captured three Canadian vessels, jailed and fined their officers and confiscated their seal pelts. “Pirates!” declared the Victoria press, demanding that Ottawa do something. It was the first skirmish in the “seal wars” that would drag on for the next twenty-five years.
James Warren was one of the owner/captains who had his ships seized. The dispute with the Americans drove his partnership with Boscowitz, which was already foundering, onto the rocks. He spearheaded an association of Victoria ship owners to try to claim damages for what they claimed was illegal American aggression, but in the end he was ruined financially and his sealing days were over. Others continued to pursue the hunt but it tailed off in the face of the American threat. From a peak of 124 vessels in 1892 (both Canadian and American), the fleet declined each year until by 1911 there were only four vessels at sea. That year Canada, Russia, Japan and the US signed the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention ending the pelagic hunt. By way of compensation the proceeds from the land-based hunt, which continued, were divided between the signatories. Victoria’s role as a major sealing port was finished.
Next time: Whales and Whaling