In response to a land environment of scattered resources of limited potential and a bounteous sea, the early inhabitants of Newfoundland developed their economy to focus on the fisheries and the cultivation, at subsistence level, of small parcels of land. The utilization of resources was built into an annual round determined by seasonal availability. The exploitation of harp seals developed as settlement grew in the 19th century, and filled a gap in employment between the forest based occupations of winter, and the appearance of the cod stocks in late spring or early summer.
Offshore sealing began in 1793 and gradually expanded throughout the nineteenth century, in part as a result of the development of the Labrador cod fishery. A number of cycles occurred with sailing vessels initially concentrated in St. Johns and Conception Bay, and smaller numbers from Trinity, Bonavista and Notre Dame Bays, and Conception Bay as the leader through 1850. The growth and profitability of the industry through the first half of the 19th century played an important role in the growth and expansion of virtually every major community between St. Johns and Twillingate and made an important contribution to the economy of the island.
The switch from sail to steam dramatically impacted the industry, with fewer vessels, larger crews, and fewer participants overall concentrating the benefits. Higher initial capital investment and increased operating costs associated with steamers shifted the concentration of owners to St. Johns where the larger and more diversified merchant firms were located. As well, there was an opposing northern shift towards the growing communities of Bonavista Bay. By the end of the century, areas represented by owners, masters and ordinary sealers, which had coincided before 1863 and the introduction of steamers, became polarized on the northern and southern most extremities of the original sealing region.
Published in: Newfoundland Quarterly, v. 101, no.2, 2008, p. 50-53.