The History of Seal Hunting

Seals first came to the Baltic Sea after the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago. Humans also followed the edge of the retreating glacier ice, and seals were one of the most important prey animals for the coastal Stone Age fishing cultures.

Sinikka Kärkkäinen & Mervi Kunnasranta

Sinikka works as a Researcher at the Finnish Heritage Agency and Mervi as a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Institute Finland

Fat, food and other materials were obtained from seals

Seals were a rich source of food and materials, such as skins, as well as their fat, known as blubber, which was boiled into seal oil. Up to half of a seal’s body weight is fat. For example, as much as 80 kg of fat can be obtained from a single grey seal. 

According to Finnish folklore, seal fat was known as the best cure for infections in both humans and domestic animals. Pharmacies still bought seal fat as a medicine in the 1940s. Seal hunting remained an important part of the livelihoods of the coastal people until the last century.

Seals were caught in many different ways

In the distant past, seals have been relatively easy to catch. In prehistoric times, hunters crept up close to the seals and used clubs. Later, nets were also used. Another method was to use sharp harpoons, i.e. jagged spears made of bone and later from iron.

Modern humans have been able to find out about the earliest seal hunting methods in the Baltic Sea based on archaeological finds.

It has been important for hunters to have a good knowledge of seal behaviour, breeding grounds, and range of movement. Catching methods and related knowledge have been passed down the generations by word of mouth for thousands of years, and the same methods have been used extensively throughout historical times.

 Former seal hunting equipment.
Former seal hunting equipment.

Throughout history, hunters have developed various methods for getting close to and fooling seals. For example, they have attracted seals closer by pretending to be seals themselves or by copying the sounds that seals make. Seals were mainly caught on the sea ice, by their breathing holes or dens and sometimes by hand from boats. These boats also provided shelter and a place to sleep at night during the hunting trips, which sometimes lasted for months. Since prehistoric times, seal dogs have also been used to assist in searching for seals’ breathing holes and dens.

 Hunting seals with a sealdog.
Hunting seals with a sealdog.

A contemporary description of seal hunting from Hailuoto Island

The following is a contemporary description of seal hunting from Hailuoto Island from the year 1815. According to the writer, the seal hunters went out onto the sea ice at the start of spring, by May at the latest. They went with their boats to edge of the open water, where they stayed on the big ice floes, drifting along with them until the ice melted. 

They returned home around midsummer and if the hunting had been good, they brought back about 100 seals of various sizes in their boats. The seals were skinned, the meat salted, smoked, and very gladly eaten. The seal blubber was stored in barrels, from which it was gradually melted into seal oil. The seal skins were nailed to the draughty outer walls of the outbuildings to dry.

Seal hunting at the Bothnian Bay, catch hauled to shore. 29.11.1969.