BACKGROUND

How sky raiders grabbed the booty in the great 1962 seal hunt

June 2 1962
BACKGROUND

How sky raiders grabbed the booty in the great 1962 seal hunt

June 2 1962

How sky raiders grabbed the booty in the great 1962 seal hunt

Late in March, newspaper headlines reported a gun battle on an ice floe in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where hijackers were said to be swooping down in helicopters to snatch seal pelts from shipbased hunters. The stories under the headlines were excited but inconclusive. What happened on the ice floe? 7 his is the story of Ed Godlewski, who was there:

This was my first seal hunt, and my last. Not because some of our furs were hijacked, and not because the job was too rough—though flying a helicopter from the pitching deck of a sealing ship in a March blizzard is a hair-raising operation. But I don’t think I could take even a passive part in that kind of butchery again. I was told that I’d get over the spectacle of men clubbing baby seals, with mothers trying vainly to protect their young, but I didn't. What I hadn't realized is that because seals are hard to kill, the hunters just beat them senseless and then skin them alive. A man can stun and skin a seal in three minutes.

I was with Capt. William Moss on the North Star VI, and ours was the only ship that carried a helicopter on board. My job was to locate the seal packs and guide the ship to them

through the ice. The first ship on the scene has a big advantage and the helicopter gave us a lead over the rest.

We soon learned, though, that a fleet of six helicopters was also in the hunt, working from shore. They flew the hunters out from Prince Edward Island

to the sealing grounds, and flew back with the pelts. The man behind their operation was Dr. Marc Arsenault of Grindstone in the Magdalen Islands.

By March 18 we had 10,000 pelts and the season was at its peak; we were taking 3,000 a day and 100,000 seals

had been killed in the area. At this stage the men were working as much as 20 hours a day and no atten.pt was made to bring the pelts aboard ship. They were simply piled on the ice, each skin marked with the ship’s brand, and each pile identified by a ship’s flag planted in the ice.

On March 29 the hunt was over; all that remained was to retrieve our pelts. I was calculating my share of the take when there came a roar from the captain on the bridge: “Thieves!” Oft’ in the distance we could see a succession of helicopters landing near our flags, and taking off a few minutes later toward Prince Edward Island. We flew over for a look; our pile of pelts seemed smaller. The captain radioed his owners, and we flew in to shore to complain to the RCMP. They told us that to lay a charge we would have to identify our own skins, which would be difficult, and in any case the occurrence was outside police jurisdiction; we would have to protect our own catch.

Captain Moss posted two men with rifles beside our flag. They soon came stumbling back; three helicopters had landed while our men waited, unwilling to shoot. Six men jumped out, overpowered the guards, roughed them up,

took their rifles and flew away with three loads of pelts.

Apoplectic with rage, the captain sent 20 armed men to the spot next day. This time the raiders handed our men a telegram from Ottawa, signed “deputy minister of fisheries,” which in effect authorized them to pick up any pelts that had been left on the ice for three days. Our men watched sullenly while they loaded up and took off for shore.

By the time our ship worked its way through the ice to pick up our pelts, the loss was heavy. Meanwhile, our owners and those of two other ships had hired lawyers, fired protests to Ottawa, and renewed their complaints to the police. The battle of the ice floe ended in the Prince Edward Island supreme court where the three sealing firms sued Dr. Arsenault in a civil action. The RCMP impounded 5,500 pelts, worth about $35.000, but they began to spoil and were released to a purchaser pending the court’s decision on ownership.

Attorney-general M. J. McQuaid said there might also be criminal prosecutions although what happened on the ice floes was beyond territorial limits in international waters. The charge, he said, would be bringing stolen goods into Canada. **