TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

Sektion 4.5. Arctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing
SektionsleiterInnen | Section Chairs: Knut Ove Arntzen (Universität Bergen), Gabriele Rampl (Scinews, Innsbruck) und Victoria Joan Moessner (University of Alaska)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Hunting and fishing in Greenland

Astrid Zauner (Austria/Greenland)




Greenland is a land with more than 2 million square kilometres (2.175.600 km²) and only about 57.000 (in 2007: 56.648) inhabitants. 250 types of fish live in the ocean, 58 types of birds breed there and 7 types of mammals live on land – these are the so called „living resources“. Approximately 40 of them are used widely; about 60 are used in total. Some of them, such as shrimp and halibut, are used for export. Others, such as the common guillemot and belugas, are utilised and consumed by the country‘s citizens only.

For the people who first inhabited Greenland about 4.500 years ago, the hunting of wildlife was the only possibility to adapt to the harsh arctic environment. The Inuit have always been dependent on their natural resources, which are still crucial for survival. Hunting still is an important and integrated part of the culture and the daily life – despite all kinds of technological advancement and import of products.

For thousands of years, Inuit were hunting and fishing and have not much affected wildlife. When the whalers came, mainly in the 17th and 18th century, masses of whales were slaughtered; using big vessels, it was much easier for them then for the Inuit with their kayaks.

Greenland has gone through a rapid development from a traditional hunting society to a modern industrial society in just over 50 years. The change to a modern society has also changed the patterns how natural resources are used. The technological advancement also includes faster boats and more effective weapons. Due to a better health system, the Greenlandic population has increased rapidly.

Although today Greenland is a modern society, it still relies heavily - culturally as well as economically - on its natural resources. Today fishing is the all-dominating export good – fish and shrimps account about 95% of total exports. In the hunting districts in the more remote areas, the seal and whale catch is still of great importance – economically as well as in terms of diet. Hunting and fishing actually forms the stable existence for approximately one fifth of the Greenlandic population.

But even nowadays, the majority of hunters and fishermen live with nature and follow the natural seasons. Due to the importance of Greenland‘s natural resources for it‘s society, sustainable use plays a crucial role in the way how these resources are treated and used.


Greenland’s obligations to international conventions and agreements

Since the introduction of the home-rule government in 1979, Greenland has signed a number of international agreements concerning the use, administration and protection of wildlife. The most important of these are …



Species covered

Biodiversity Convention

Internat. convention

Sustainable use of all species

Ramsar Convention

Internat. convention

Water birds in wetlands
(Greenland has 11 Ramsar areas)

(Washington Convention;
Convention on Inter-national Trade in endan-
gered species of wild flora and fauna

Internat. convention

Trade in endangered species,
e.g. polar bear, walrus, narwhal

(International Whaling

Internat. agreement among 40 countries

Mink whale and fin whale

(Joint Commission on
Narwhal and Beluga)

Greenland + Canada

Narwhal and beluga

(North Atlantic Marine
Mammal Commission)

Greenland, Iceland,
Norway, the Faeroe

Sea mammals in the north Atlantic

Oslo Convention  

Greenland/Denmark, Norway, Canada,
Russia, USA

Polar bear

(Northwest Atlantic
Fisheries Org.)

Internat. agreement among 14 countries

Agreement on fisheries covering the northwest Atlantic outside the 200 nautical mile zone

(International Council for the Exploration of the Sea)

Internat. council     

Advises on fishing in waters between Greenland and Iceland

International Murre Conservation Strategy

Internat. agreement           

Polar common guillemot  

Circumpolar Eider Conservation Strategy

Circumpolar agreement



State of the living resources in Greenland

The Greenlandic home-rule government emphasized that „resource use will be based on the principle of sustainability and protection of the environment.

The scientific background comes from the Institute of Natural Resources, which is Greenland‘s centre for research of natural sciences. The duties of the institute are, amongst others, to collect, prepare and evaluate data on the use and protection of living resources. Other tasks are to conduct and coordinate research and to provide advice to the home-rule government concerning sustainable use. The biological advice is given on the basis of studies and documentation that are independent of political and financial interests. The advice is often prepared in collaboration with foreign institutions and organisations, such as IWC, NAMMCO, NAFO and ICES.

It is important to emphasize that the majority of the species utilized in Greenland have no problems, some (those with the „+“ behind the word) are even flourishing. This means, their exploitation is sustainable.

Whales:   mink whale, fin whale
Seals:   harp seal+, ringed seal, bearded seal, hooded seal
Land mammals reindeer+, musk ox+
Fish/Shrimp:  shrimp+, norway haddock, capelin, char
Birds: fulmar, iceland gull, glaucous gull, black guillemot, little auk, cormorant, ptarmigan, short-billed goose, white-fronted goose, barnacle goose


Seal hunt in Greenland and Canada

Seal hunt in Canada

Talking about harp seals makes everybody think of the commercial Canadian seal hunt, which mainly takes place on the ice in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence (30%) and Newfoundland (70%) between March and May. Harp seals consist of three distinct populations: one in the northwest Atlantic/Davis Strait, one in the Greenland Sea south of Jan Mayen and one in the Barents White Sea. The harp seal is the most abundant seal species of the northern seals, but also the most hunted. In 2005, the estimation of the total harp seal population was 5.5 to 7.9 million individuals (2007: 5.5 million individuals off Greenland’s west coast).

In the Canadian Arctic, this species is hunted since the 16th century. Historically, seals were mainly exploited for their blubber, meat and skins. The overall importance of commercial sealing for most species has largely declined in all but a few countries; nevertheless it is estimated that the harp seal population declined by 50-66% between the 1950s and 1970s - with an estimated population of only approximately two million individuals, the population was considered to be “in trouble”.

Concerns about animal welfare were first articulated in the 1960s - the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Greenpeace and other organisations began to mobilize public opinion against the annual hunt of baby harp seals off Canada’s east coast. After fierce protests in the 1970s and 1980s, the US finally banned the importation of seal products in 1972, followed by a ban by the ECC (European Economic Community) to import whitecoat (< 14 day old pups) seal fur in 1983; many European countries banned the import of all Canadian seal products. This caused the collapse of the market for seal fur in Europe.

From 1996 onwards, Asia replaced Europe as the major destination for exports of seal products (skin, oil and meat) – the number of killed seals increased dramatically again. In 1995, about 60.000 seals were killed, but already four times more in 1996. Still, the commercial Canadian sealing is argued to be a significant source of income for thousands of sealers and their families, especially in remote, coastal communities with high unemployment rates (e.g. areas in Newfoundland) and during times when fishing options is unavailable.

As a management plan, total allowable catches (TACs that depend on the estimated fitness of the population; partly annual quotas, partly quotas over three years) were introduced in Canada already in 1971, but, according to a Greenpeace report, they are not very sustainable as surveys on the populations are made infrequently and the increasing ecological threats are not really taken into account – the population projections are based upon assumptions that environmental and biological factors remain unchanged during the hunting period.  Nevertheless the management plan helped the harp seal population to recover - it is assumed that today’s population size is triple what it was in the 1970s.

Although pups younger than 14 days are protected in Canada since 1987, most harvested harp seals are under the age of three months (the white coat is moulted at 2-4 weeks). In the calculations leading to the sealing quotas, the age of the catches is not included. Harp seals reach their maturity at 5-8 years (they can live up to about 30 years), which means that the removal of young individuals would impact the population size some years later. The problem is that pup surveys are only conducted every 4-5 years; so impacts would probably be detected after 10 years, which could be too late to react to a critical decline in population size. If too many seals are caught before they are able to reproduce themselves, this is expected to lead to a reduction of the populations over time. Other threats for the populations are climate change, habitat disturbance, entanglement in fishing nets, fisheries related harvests, fisheries by-catch, toxic pollution and disease.

When the Canadian Government decided to resume sealing activities in their management plan 2003-2005 at levels greater than in the 50 years before (maximum annual catch of 350.000 individuals), commercial sealing has been thrown into sharper focus again. Much smaller hunt quotas are also managed jointly by Norway (20.000 seals in 2001) and Russia (76.000 pubs in 2001). According to Greenpeace, the Canadian TACs of this period was equivalent to the harvest during the 1950s and 1960s – numbers which resulted in a decline of the harp seal population to its lowest number (< 2 million animals)! In 2006, the Canadian harp seal quota was 325.000 individuals; in 2007 it was reduced to 270.000. The success of commercial sealing mainly depends on the marked and on weather conditions - sometimes, the number of harvested seals is below, rarely above the total allowed catch. The problem is that only harvested seals are registered; those individuals that are “struck but lost” are not taken into account but might be significant in number.

Seal hunt in Greenland

The protests against the brutal killing of whitecoats on the ice of Newfoundland and Jan Mayen in the 1970s and 1980s led to a collapse of seal hunt; but not only the commercial Canadian baby sealing collapsed. Lumped together with commercial sealers were up to 10.000 Greenlandic hunters and their families, but also Inuit from Canada and Alaska. Their long tradition of subsistence hunting of adult seals has been confused with the killing of seal pups and over-hunting off the coast of Newfoundland. This misunderstanding led to a serious decrease of sealskin prices from approximately 25 $ per pelts in 1977 to 8 $ in 1988; the amount of sold skins decreased dramatically at the same time. As a result of a boycott off all sealskins in Europe many Inuit have seen their standard of living decline. Many people, who gained their main or only income from sealing (mainly in North and East Greenland) turned from proud hunters to recipients of social assistance, some got the chance to migrate from North Greenland to the south to work in the fishing industry when the seal hunt became unprofitable. It was often not worth the effort for the hunters’ wives to prepare the skins of the seals which their husband shot as food for the family and the sledge dogs. The Greenlandic home-rule government started to subsidize the indigenous subsistence seal hunt. Being unemployed or under-employed, many hunters lost their self-respect as well as their cultural identity - some of them started to drink alcohol and/or committed suicide – mainly in areas were no other income possibilities were available.

Ironically, the Inuit never killed whitecoats – the harp seal doesn’t even breed in Greenland (Jonathan Motzfeld, Greenland’s premier: ''Greenlanders do not kill baby seals because we do not have baby seals” ... by the time the seals make the 1,200-mile swim from Atlantic Canada to Greenland, they are considered adult seals).

Aqqaluk Lynge, the president of the ICC regretted that „traditional hunting communities have been destroyed by campaigns based on emotion instead of scientific evidence …” - “the trade of our sealskin coats to Europe helps our local village economics enormously.“

The European market is so important for sealskins that a group of Inuit hunters and politicians invested about 80.000 $ to make an information campaign tour through Europe in 1982 to clear up the confusion: “We don’t expect sealskin prices to rise immediately as a result of the campaign. We do hope to leave behind in Europe a doubt which slowly but surely will result in a better understanding of native seal hunting.”

Favourable press coverage of the Inuit Campaign slowly led to a better understanding of indigenous seal hunting, the sealskin marked slowly recovered in the 1990s; haberdasheries and souvenir shops sell products to locals and tourists again (the EU allows the import of products from adult seals, it only forbids products from seal pups). In Greenland, skins are often used for gloves, hoods, jackets and pants – no modern material can substitute for sealskin clothing at low temperatures.

… but regardless of the skin’s commercial value, many families need the seal meat as food for themselves and for their sledge dogs. Most other meat products have to be imported from Europe, and of course people don’t want to eat fish all the time. Like other wild animals, these seals have lived in freedom until they were caught, the ones from the supermarket were quite likely held in tiny stables, have never seen the sun, could never enjoy an appropriate life … .

The expansion of indigenous hunt in Greenland was reported to have increased from around 10.000 individuals per year in the early 1970s to around 65.000-90.000 between 1998 and 2007. Nevertheless, the Greenlandic home-rule government reported that the harp seal population in Greenlandic waters is flourishing at the moment and that there is no threat for them (2007).

Greenpeace and other environmental organisations

Nevertheless, also indigenous hunt targets adults and juveniles (never whitecoats!); therefore it might have an additional impact on the population, which is mainly threatened by the high catches of Canadian sealers. Surprisingly, no joint management between commercial and subsistence hunting has been formulated yet and Greenpeace criticised that clear and reliable data on the Greenlandic hunt are missing. The other problem is, that the population swims across international borders and is hunted by two countries – again, a joint agreement for sustainable hunt is missing. An advisor of the International Fund for Animal Welfare worries that if the United States ever lifted the ban on seal products, the number of hunted seals would spiral upward again.

After the Greenlandic campaign, Greenpeace emphasized that “it does not oppose the indigenous hunt in Canada and Greenland …even if the skins are sold on the marked”, but that it “opposes any human activity, which is harmful to populations of pinnipeds; the killing of pinnipeds for commercial trade; the taking of any pinnipeds from endangered, threatened, or seriously reduced populations, or from populations whose status is unknown, or where it is thought that such takes may have an adverse effect (…). We are opposed to large scale commercial hunts for people who don’t need the money …” – well, but even those men who cull the seals near Newfoundland don’t do it for fun, I guess.

In 1985, Greenpeace regretted the boycott of sealskins from Greenland as “a regrettable combination of misinformation and ignorance” and stressed that the species hunted by the Inuit were not endangered: “… we have destroyed the market for sealskins – this is true, … if we’d understood your problems seven years ago you could probably still sell your furs.”. On the other hand – what is “commercial”? Is a commercial hunter someone who uses most parts of the seal, mainly the meat, and sells a skin every now and then; or is it someone who kills for the fur only and sells thousands of skins? At a public meeting in Greenland 1985, Greenpeace defined commercial hunting as a “hunt which is done primarily for sale to the national and international markets for fur, leather, oil” and indigenous subsistence hunting as “the killing of seals done primarily for survival, and that includes sale of pelts to the international market.” Greenpeace emphasized one exemption to that – the species from endangered or threatened populations.

Well, the discussion about this is still going on as you all know …


Protection of endangered species in Greenland

Although the harp seal is not threatened in Greenland, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources judged (in 2000) that other 10 species needed greater protection because their stocks were declining or there was a risk that they would decline. These species are: beluga, narwhal, polar bear, walrus, common seal, porpoise, common guillemot, eider, king eider and arctic tern.

In cooperation with the Institute of Natural Resources, the Hunting and the Fishery Council, the Greenlandic home-rule government adopted more restrictive legislation. This should be the basis to protect the endangered species and to comply with the international conventions and administration agreements. Depending on the actual situation of the stock of the concerned species, quotas are set – every catch has to be reported by the hunter. For several species, the hunting period is limited to several weeks or months per year. Other species, such as polar bears, can only be hunted by professional hunters. If necessary, a total prohibition of the hunt or catch of the concerned species can be pronounced until the stock has recovered.

The Tulugaq campaign

Prohibitions and regulations are of course not enough to protect wildlife. It is much more important to inform people, to create knowledge and finally to shape the awareness of the citizens about the fact that some of the resources they live on are threatened.

To meet this demand, the government decided to introduce an information campaign and to prepare an action plan on sustainable use. This so called Tulugaq campaign was carried out from August 2002 – August 2004.

The purpose of the campaign was to

Information and sharing of knowledge should create a better dialogue between the different target groups as well as a constructive discussion. Biological knowledge, social and cultural background (including suggestions of locals) as well as political opinions should all be taken into account to find possible solutions.

To reach as many people as possible, the campaign used a wide range of different material with factual and biological information on living resources in Greenland. As media TV and radio programmes and spots, but also web pages, booklets and posters were used. Information folders and fact sheets about the situation of the most exploit and endangered local species were sent i.e. to schools, local authorities and hunter associations across the country.

As information and knowledge are not enough to change attitudes and behaviour of people, the campaign also tried to encourage the citizens to discuss the actual situation of the (sustainable) use of Greenland‘s living resources. People were also encouraged to make suggestions about what should be done about the fact that around 10 of the 40 most exploit species are in decline; the most frequent ones were:

The focus of the Tulugaq campaign was to draw the attention to the fact that humans can do something against the decline of the stocks of their prey – in Greenland, discussions and actions concerning the impact of hunting can definitely change more than the discussion about the impact of global warming. 57.000 Greenlanders with almost no polluting industry are definitively not the ones that cause global warming. But if every hunter and every fisherman is aware about the situation of the wildlife in his country, he might hopefully be ready to try to use the natural resources in a sustainable way. In a way that also the following generations can life of and with Greenland’s wonderful nature. To reach the target of sustainable use, the foundation stones are knowledge, understanding and respect of the nature and the animals.




Online sources:

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For quotation purposes:
Astrid Zauner: Hunting and fishing in Greenland - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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