Sealing schooner WP Sayward

Sealing schooner ‘W.P. Sayward’, built on Laing’s Ways
Accreditation: Ruth Laing and her late husband,
Walter Laing (great grandson of Robert Laing) of Victoria

The thick fur of the northern fur seal pelts Nuu-cha-nuth seafarers brought in trade to Fort Victoria in the 1840’s caught the attention of Hudson’s Bay Company traders.

The Vagabond Fleet

Soon March became a month of economic boom for Victoria as the great fur seal herd was hunted as they migrated past Vancouver Island. They were on their way to their Alaskan summer breeding grounds in the Pribilof Islands. In 1894, 59 pelagic (open sea) sealing schooners operated out of Victoria, employing 518 aboriginal and 818 non-aboriginal people. In 1897 nearly 100,000 pelts passed through Victoria.

The headquarters of Victoria's sealing fleet in the upper harbour just south of the Point Ellis Bridge and west of Rock Bay.

The headquarters of Victoria’s sealing fleet in the upper harbour just south of the Point Ellis Bridge and west of Rock Bay.

Early photos of Victoria’s sealing vessels indicate most appear to be clipper bowed schooners with black hulls. Almost all featured doubled topmasts, though some seem to lack the forward topmast and a few were bald-headed. Almost universally they featured extremely long, doubled bowsprits. There was a wide variety of hull shapes and sizes. Some had wide low transoms with little taper toward their ends while others look more like Grand Banks cod schooners.

In 1867 the United States government purchased Alaska from Russia. The boundary between the two countries was drawn from the middle of Bering Strait. dividing the Bering Sea into two parts. The Pribilof Islands, principal breeding-grounds of the northern fur seals, fell under American ownership.

Sealers’ wages were a main source of revenue for hotels, rooming houses, eating houses, saloon and the retail trade. City ship chandlers fitted out not only Victoria-based sealers but also those from Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and U. S. Pacific ports which chased the seals to Alaska. In 1889, 32 sealers left Victoria and brought back pelts valued at $247,170. The entire sealing industry was Victoria-controlled.

American Conservation

By the late1880’s the Americans determined pelagic sealing was greatly reducing the herd and threatened it with extinction. This led to the U.S. claiming exclusive jurisdiction over the Bering Sea sealing industry. Subsequently, the United States Revenue Cutter Service captured several vessels from Victoria’s pelagic sealing fleet. The dispute continued until 1911 when Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and the United States agreed to prohibit pelagic sealing and sealing in the Pribilof Islands. The agreement brought an end to Victoria’s sealing fleet as Great Britain had responsibility for Canada’s foreign policy at the time. Sealing in the Bering Sea fell completely under U.S. supervision and for several years sealing was stopped completely. When it did resume it was under careful restrictions. In 1941 Japan withdrew from the agreement, but a new agreement was signed in 1956.