Hunting at sea – then and now

The Baltic Sea has a long and rich history of hunting. In the old times seals were especially prized as large quarry that yielded varied and valuable resources for the year-round needs of the people.

Seals were the most important catch for our ancestors

Seals spread to the Baltic Sea after the most recent ice-age ended some 10,000 years ago. As the ice receded, people moved in and seals became the most important prey for the coastal tribes of the Stone Age.

Seals yielded plenty of meat and other useful materials, such as seal skin and fat, which was cooked into oil. A single grey seal could offer up to 80 kg of fat, comprising more than half of its weight. 

In Finnish folklore, seal fat was considered the best medicine against infections that struck people and domestic animals. Pharmacies still bought seal fat for medicinal purposes well into the 1940s.

Seal hunting was an important part of the livelihood of the people of the coastline until the 1900s.

 Two men sitting behind two dead seals. An old faded photo.
Ilmari and Arto Pitkänen hunting for seals in Tammio, Vehkalahti, in the early 1900s. Source: Finnish Heritage Agency.

Seal hunting has required knowledge of how the animals behave

Seals could be a relatively easy catch. During the prehistoric era, they were commonly hunted with close-range clubs. Nets and harpoons made of bone or iron were other popular tools.

Archaeological data offers details about early seal hunting in the Baltic Sea. Hunters had to know how seals behave and where they nest and swim. Hunting methods and knowledge were passed from one generation to the next for thousands of years, throughout our recorded history. 

Ancient hunters developed various ways to approach and trick seals, like attracting them by mimicking their sounds or behaviour. 

Seals were hunted on top of sea ice, from their breathing holes or nests, and sometimes from boats. Hunting trips could last for months, so boats also offered protection from the elements and a place to sleep during the long winter nights.

Trained seal dogs have also been used to find breathing holes and nests since the prehistoric era.

 A hunter dressed in white standing on a wall of sea ice.
A seal hunter standing on a pile of packed sea ice in the Gulf of Finland in 1953.

Every part of a hunted seal was used

A description of seal hunting in Hailuoto 1815 has been preserved to the present day. According to the narrator, historical seal hunters left for the hunt when the spring arrived, no later than May. They pulled their boats on top of large drifting rafts of ice and stayed there until the ice melted. 

The hunters returned around Midsummer and, if luck was in their favour, brought back up to 100 seals of different sizes.

The seals were then skinned and their meat was salted, smoked and eaten or stored for later use. Fat was stored in barrels and made into oil. Skins were nailed to dry on the walls of draughty outbuildings.

 Three men leaning against a boat, a fourth man working inside. Three seals lying on the ground in front.
Seal hunting in the Bothnian Bay, with catch dragged onto the shore. 29 November 1969. Source: Press Photo Archive JOKA/Finnish Heritage Agency.

Seal hunting now requires a permit 

Grey and ringed seal populations declined steeply during the 1900s due to unregulated sealing and the practice of paying bounties for dead seals. In addition, the high concentrations of environmental toxins at the time negatively impacted seal reproduction.

For these reasons, both species were declared as protected in the early 1980s. 

Grey seals are now hunted within the limits of regional quotas, requiring a special licence granted by the Finnish Wildlife Agency. The harbor seal remains rare in Finnish territorial waters and is therefore protected by law.

Seal hunters face challenging environmental conditions, as they stalk their prey at the open sea during spring or keep a careful eye on their resting spots on islets during summer and early autumn.

In Finland, seals are typically hunted at southern and southwestern waters. The annual catch consists of a few hundred individuals.

Rifles are favoured as seal hunting weapons, as the modern hunters do not typically use traps at sea. If a seal is found dead in a trap, the Hunting Act decrees that the carcass belongs to the owner of the trap. 

However, if a seal or porpoise is caught in a trap, the trap holder must immediately notify the Natural Resources Institute of Finland in accordance to the Fishing Act.

 Two men in a boat in the middle of the sea, melting rafts of ice drifting past.
Hunting for seals from a boat.

Birds are mostly hunted during autumn

Although many former hunting methods are now forbidden, Finland offers plenty of opportunities for hunting at sea. 

Permanent residents can hunt in public waters. Hunting is also permitted on state-owned islands and islets. However, note that the management of some state-owned islets has been handed over to third parties and hunting may not be allowed in such cases. 

Following regulations, birds can be hunted on the open shores of uninhabited outer islands. Most hunters focus on game birds found during autumn and seals, but a number of small predators are caught annually from islands and islets for nature conservation purposes. 

Traditionally important game birds include the common eider and the long-tailed duck, where the annual catch is 10,000–20,000 individuals at coastal areas. A few thousand hunters hunt for these bird species every year. The common goldeneye and the common merganser are also popular quarry.

The number of hunters and caught birds has decreased in the last few decades.

 A flock of male eiders surrounding a female.
Common Eiders lekking.

The bird hunting season at sea lasts from August or September until the end of December, depending on the species. Male eiders are also hunted in early June, with certain restrictions.

Typically, hunting takes place from the shorelines of islands and small outer islets accessible to the public. Hunters observe their surroundings from a hunting blind and look for flying birds within the range of a shotgun.

Natural-looking bird decoys are often used to attract birds. Sometimes hunters also actively search for birds walking along the shoreline or from a boat with a gun in hand. 

American minks and raccoon dogs are hunted to protect birds

The National Strategy on Invasive Alien Species considers the American mink and the raccoon dog as so harmful that immediate and effective measures of removal must be taken. 

These species have a particularly significant impact on water- and shorebirds, many of which nest in large colonies on islets or wetlands. A single predator that finds its way to a bird colony can destroy an entire generation of hatchlings.

In the outer archipelago, the protected auks, seagulls and common eiders are particularly vulnerable. 

The most effective way to protect hatchlings is to remove the predators just before the nesting season, when they have already settled down in their territories and do not move around as much as during autumn.

The American mink is often the target of removal on the treeless islets and islands of the outer archipelago, while the raccoon dog is a target on larger tree-covered islands. Small predators are also hunted in the inner and middle archipelago, through which the predators move to outer islands.

In the archipelago, the harmful invaders are culled by combing the hunting area with a hunting dog and a leaf blower. In addition, hunters use traps to reduce the number of small predators.

Hunting alien species at nature conservation sites is a voluntary activity, subject to a permit and coordinated by Metsähallitus.

Hunting in the Åland Islands

The Åland Islands offer good opportunities for hunting. Its elk and water bird populations are bountiful and provide excellent meat.

Hunting in the Åland Islands requires a licence

To hunt in the Åland Islands, the prospective hunter needs a hunting licence, obtained after passing a hunting examination and paying a game management fee. In addition, to hunt with a bow requires completing a bow examination.

People living outside the Åland Islands can acquire a hunting licence by providing evidence that they have completed a similar hunting examination in mainland Finland or in their home country.

Hunting is permitted in specified hunting areas

Hunting permissions are usually associated with landowning, but there are also areas where no hunting permission is required and where Finnish residents can hunt freely. These areas include public waters.

Deer and elk hunting are subject to a special licence granted by the government of Åland, whereas other hunting is regulated by the hunting regulations or specific decisions made during the hunting season.

Seal hunting in the Åland Islands

Grey seals can be hunted in accordance with the guidelines defined by the government of Åland, regulating when and how hunting is permitted.

In the Åland Islands, the annual hunting quota is 450 seals. All hunted seals must be reported to the Government of Åland. Although the majority of grey seals in the Baltic Sea are found in the Archipelago Sea and around the Åland Islands, there are only a handful of seal hunters. Seal hunting takes time and is highly dependent on the weather. In 2018, only 37 hunters reported that they had shot a seal or seals. A total of 128 grey seals were shot in 2018.

Read more about hunting in Swedish

Fastigshetverket: Områden med fritt jakt och fiske

Regeringen: Jakt och viltvård