The first known occurrence of seals being hunted and killed by humans dates back to the Stone Age. Without fur seals the Eskimos or Inuits of North America and Siberia would not have been able to survive. There is also evidence that the people living on the islands and shores of north west Europe and the Baltic Sea were using clubs to kill seals and made implements from seal bones in the Stone Age (more than 10,000 years ago).

The killing of seals for commercial purposes can be dated back to the Spanish in 1515 when a cargo of fur seal skins was sent from Uruguay to the markets in Seville, Spain. There is also some evidence that fur seals skins were being traded in South Africa over 300 years ago.

But these activities were on a very small scale. As W. N. Bonner says ?the real onslaught began in about 1775 when the South Sea Whalers roamed the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere? and discovered the islands where fur seals had been living oblivious to man.

New Zealand fur seal on Macquarie Island.
Photo: G. Copson

From an American point of view, the first large commercial cargo of 13,000 seal skins from the Falkland Islands were sold in Canton, China for US$5.00 each in 1775. Once the news of the fur seals in the Southern Oceans reached other ship owners and ship captains many more ships set off in search of fur seals.

The commercial activity in sealing had by now become a mixture of killing fur seals to collect their skins and killing the larger elephant seals and reducing the blubber of this animal into oil. The seal oil was used for lighting, lubrication and manufacturing.

According to Dr H. R. Mill, English sealers brought back from the Isle of Georgia and Magellan Strait as many as 40,000 seal skins and 2,800 tons of elephant oil in 1778. In 1791, no less than 102 vessels, averaging 200 tons burden and manned by 3000 sealers, were engaged in securing fur seals and oil in the southern ocean. Dr Mill?s statements have not been verified by more recent research.

In 1798 Capt Edmund Fanning, of the ship, Betsey sold 100,000 fur skins in Canton nearly all of which came from Mas-a-Fuera, the main island of the Juan Fernandez Group, in the Pacific Ocean.

By 1800, ships were gathering seal skins from Brazil, South Georgia, Isles de Kerguelen, Crozet Islands, Bass Strait, Tasmania, New Zealand, Galapagos and Patagonia. Some of the skins were taken to China to be sold and the ship's owners then bought cargoes of tea, porcelain and other Chinese goods which were taken to North America and Europe. Other skins were taken to Europe and sold for use as material for hats, coats, waistcoats and boots.

New Zealand fur seal near Dunedin
Photo: Glyn Roberts


In London in 1812, the invention of a means of dressing the seal skins so that a fur of much higher quality could be produced caused another surge in the search for new seal colonies as the skins would now be worth so much more.

In 1815, sealing hunting was occurring at 35 different places around the world including Macquarie Island. In 1821 the industry reached its peak when, according to Lloyd's Register, there were 48,000 tons of shipping (about 164 ships) engaged in sealing and whaling activities from Great Britain alone. There are records of another 27 ships from USA sailing the southern oceans at this time looking for fur seals. As an example, there were 47 British and American sealing ships working the beaches at the New South Shetland Islands in 1820-21. It has been estimated that over 250,000 fur seals were taken from these islands in one season.

By 1830, most of the easily accessible sealing grounds had been worked out and the trade was declining and by 1859, there was just one ship on Lloyd's Shipping Register wholly engaged in the search for fur seals. The sealing journeys were taking longer (3 or more years) and the rewards in number of seal skins acquired were getting fewer as only the farthest and least accessible beaches now had any seals.

Subantarctic fur seal - Macquarie Island, 2000
Photo: Tavis Potts

It seems that by the 1840?s fur sealing and seal oiling were by now considered to be some of the dirtiest, difficult and dangerous jobs for sailors. Ship owners and captains were making more profit from other forms of trading. So owners were only sending their older ships on this type of journey when there was no other more rewarding work available for a ship and its crew. However, there was one ship, Seringapatam, of 335 tons built in Bombay in 1790 or 1799, which was continuously employed in sealing and whaling for 46 years from 1801 to 1847.

Fur sealing has continued in the southern ocean to a very limit degree, usually under government controlled harvesting, even to this day. Based upon unreliable data, it is conservatively estimated that over twenty five million fur seals were slaughtered for their skins in the one hundred and twenty five years from 1775-1900.

For more information about the history of sealing, particularly on Macquarie Island, go to:-

There is an excellent list of publications about seals at the Seal Conservation Society's web site:-

Glyn Roberts
December 1999.


Bonner, W. N. 1968, ?The Fur Seal of South Georgia?, British Antarctic Survey Report No 56, London.

Cumpston J. S. 1968, ?Macquarie Island? , Dept. of External Affairs, Melbourne.

Jones A. G. E. 1986, ?Ships employed in the South Seas Trade 1776-1861?, Roebuck Society, Canberra.

Mill H. R. 1905, ?he Siege of the South Pole?, London.