Since he was a child, Hammeken Danielsen has been hunting narwhals. He and his father would cruise through the fjords of Greenland in a tiny speedboat, equipped with rifles and harpoons and clothed in polar-bear fur trousers and sealskin boots to keep warm in the cold.
Danielsen, aged 33, is a licensed hunter in Ittoqqortoormiit, a small community in east Greenland with a population of 345 people. His main source of revenue is narwhals. They are a Greenlandic delicacy known as “the unicorns of the sea” because of their lengthy spiralled tusks. Mattak, or raw, sliced narwhal skin and blubber, is frequently offered on special occasions.
However, the desire for the marine animals is producing a rift between scientists, who argue that hunting should be prohibited to prevent the extinction of cetacean populations in east Greenland, and hunters, who accuse scientists of dismissing their culture and deep understanding of the sea.
Narwhals are located in Arctic waters primarily near Greenland and Canada, and their global population is believed to be around 120,000. Noise pollution from ships, which can disrupt their navigation and ability to find food, as well as rising waters owing to global warming, are all risks to these secretive species. They lose their habitat and food as the ice evaporates.
In 2004, the government of Greenland set hunting quotas for narwhals for the first time, as well as a prohibition on the profitable export of their tusks. Narwhal meat is now the most commercially valuable product among hunters, and it is transported around the country from hunting districts to Facebook groups and stores, where it may bring 500 Danish kroner (£57) per kg.
Despite hunting limitations, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, a government advisory agency that monitors the environment, reports that population declines. In 2008, surveys suggested that there were over 1,900 narwhals in Ittoqqortoormiit, east Greenland’s main hunting region. The population of the area was estimated to be around 400 people at the time of the latest census in 2016.
According to scientists, the three hunting grounds in the east – Ittoqqortoormiit, Tasiilaq, and Kangerlussuaq fjord – have a total population of little more than 600 narwhals.
Narwhals are in danger of extinction in east Greenland, according to the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, which recommended a hunting ban in the three areas last year.
“If the hunting continues at any level, the stock will vanish,” says Mads Peter Heide-Jrgensen, a biologist at the institution who has spent 20 years studying and tracking narwhals.
Scientists initially noticed something was amiss with the narwhal population in 2014, when a narwhal previously tagged for a study was hunted, according to Heide-Jrgensen. Hunters had never caught tagged whales before because narwhal populations were so large. But, he claims, it began to happen more regularly, implying that the population was dwindling. “Of course, there is an issue if you keep catching the same whales all the time, and there aren’t very many of them,” he says.
According to Roderick Hobbs, a biologist who chairs a working group on east Greenland narwhals within the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), an international conservation organization, narwhals are not reproducing quickly enough to sustain the population.
According to Hobbs’ research of hunters’ reports, the percentage of pregnant female narwhals taken has been declining since 2011, reaching zero in two of the three hunting regions in 2016 and 2017. “This shows that the population’s birthrate is declining,” he argues.
He presented his findings at a NAMMCO meeting in March 2021, calling for an end to hunting. Opponents of a ban also spoke during the meeting.
Greenland’s Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting, and Agriculture’s Sofie Abelsen emphasized the cultural and nutritional value of narwhals for east coast populations. Because most of the villages are isolated and only receive cargo ships once or twice a year, narwhal meat remains a key source of nutrients and cash.
Danielsen, one of two east Greenlandic hunters who attended the NAMMCO meeting, chastised scientists for their counting methods and unwillingness to work with the communities they research. He said that biologists were not conducting surveys in the appropriate locations. “We saw a lot of narwhals; old folks claim there are more now than there were before.”
A demand for zero hunting quotas was rejected by the NAMMCO management committee. Rather than outright banning hunting, the government is gradually reducing quotas, from 50 narwhals per year in 2020 to 20 by 2023. However, by the end of 2021, the government had boosted quotas in east Greenland by 20 percent.
Greenland’s parliament approved a narwhal census in the region last year, which will take place this summer and involve the hunters. A new census, however, is unlikely to modify the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources’ decision, according to Fernando Ugarte, a Mexican biologist who oversees the section for marine mammals. “That stock is unique, and hunting should be prohibited in order to protect it,” he adds.
According to Hobbs’ analysis, there is a 30% chance that narwhals will go extinct in east Greenland by 2025 if no restriction is enacted, and a 74% chance by 2028 if no ban is enacted. According to Ugarte, the eastern hunting regions did not catch enough narwhals to meet their requirements last year, indicating that the mammals are not as plentiful as hunters believe. The presence of killer whales in the fjords this year, according to hunters, may have scared the narwhals away.
According to Danielson, communication between hunters and biologists has reached an all-time low. Before the researchers proposed a ban, some hunters helped them with their research by supplying narwhals and recovering the satellite tags used to track the creatures.
However, according to Danielsen, the scientists have showed no respect for the local inhabitants. He’s particularly furious about an incident in 2018, when he claims scientists fired seismic airguns (which release compressed air to create sound waves over the water) in a local fjord without alerting the hunters as part of a research investigating narwhals’ responses to marine noise pollution. According to Danielsen, the loudness has deterred narwhals from swimming in the fjord.
“We might work [with the scientists] if both groups were respected equally,” he adds, adding that the researchers, the majority of whom are not Greenlanders, are unfamiliar with the local culture.
The noise created by the airguns was less than that produced by the hunters’ motorboats, according to Heide-Jrgensen, who also claims that while the narwhals were startled during the trial, they returned to the fjords afterwards.
He claims that the goal is to protect the populations, not to outlaw hunting forever. “We conduct study to ensure that resources will be available in the future,” he explains. “As a result, the hunt can go on.”
However, Danielsen is concerned that once the quota is set at zero, it will take a long time for it to raise again, with long-term consequences: “Our successors will never learn how to catch a narwhal, and [they] will forget the tradition.”
According to Aviaja Hauptmann, a microbiologist at the University of Greenland, the rivalry between hunters and scientists is nothing new in Greenland. She is one of a strikingly small number of Greenlandic scientific researchers. She is half Danish and half indigenous Inuk. Scientists’ failure to understand hunters’ traditional wisdom, she claims, is at the basis of the problem.
“There’s this sense that hunters must understand science,” adds Hauptmann. “However, there isn’t the same acknowledgement that scientists need to grasp the hunters’ lives, expertise, and experiences.”
This article by Sofia Moutinho and Regin Winther Poulsen was first published by The Guardian on 2 June 2022. Lead Image: A pod of narwhals off Greenland. Scientists at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources believe the population fell from about 1,900 to 400 between 2008 and 2016. But a local hunter says: ‘Old people say that there are more now than before.’ Photograph: Carsten Egevang.
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