The Last Hunt? future in jeopardy for “the unicorn of the sea” | Conservation and Indigenous Peoples
Age Hammeken Danielsen has hunted narwhal since childhood. He and his father traveled along the fjords of Greenland on a small motorboat, armed with guns and harpoons and dressed in polar bear fur pants and sealskin boots to insulate them from the freezing weather.
Danielsen, now 33, is a licensed hunter in Ittoqqortoormiit, a remote village of 345 people in east Greenland. Narwhals are his main source of income. Known as the “unicorns of the sea” for their long spiraling tusks, they are a Greenlandic delicacy. Diced raw narwhal skin and fat, called Mattakis often served on special occasions.
But the appetite for marine mammals is causing conflict between scientists, who say hunting must be banned to protect East Greenland’s cetacean populations from collapsing, and hunters, who accuse scientists of not disregard their culture and deep understanding of the sea.
Narwhals are found in Arctic waters, primarily around Greenland and Canada, and are estimated to number around 120,000 worldwide. These elusive animals face threats including noise pollution from ships, which can disrupt their navigation and ability to find food, and warming waters due to global warming. As the ice melts, they lose their habitat and their food.
The Greenland government first introduced quotas for narwhal hunting in 2004 and also banned the lucrative export of their tusks. Narwhal meat is now the most prized commodity for hunters commercially and is distributed across the country from hunting districts to be sold in Facebook groups and supermarkets, where it can fetch 500 Danish kroner (£57 ) per kilogram.
Yet despite hunting restrictions, populations are plummeting, according to surveys by the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, a government advisory body that monitors the environment. In 2008, surveys estimated that there were around 1,900 narwhals at Ittoqqortoormiit, the main hunting ground in East Greenland. At the last count in the region, in 2016, the population was estimated at around 400 inhabitants.
Scientists estimate that today the three hunting sites to the east – Ittoqqortoormiit, Tasiilaq and Kangerlussuaq Fjord – have no more than 600 narwhals combined.
The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources has warned that narwhals are at high risk of extinction in eastern Greenland and last year advised hunting bans in all three areas.
“The stock will disappear if hunting continues at any level,” says Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, a biologist at the institute, who has studied and tracked narwhals for 20 years.
Scientists started noticing something wrong with the narwhal population in 2014, Heide-Jørgensen says, when for the first time a narwhal previously tagged for study was hunted. Because narwhal populations were relatively large, hunters had never caught tagged whales before. But it started to happen more frequently, he says, suggesting the population was declining. “If you keep catching the same whales all the time, and there aren’t many, of course there’s a problem,” he says.
Narwhals are not reproducing fast enough to sustain the population, says Roderick Hobbs, a biologist who chairs an East Greenland narwhal working group at the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). , an international conservation organization.
The percentage of pregnant female narwhals taken has been declining since 2011, according to Hobbs’ analysis of hunter reports, reaching zero in 2016 and 2017 in two of the three hunting districts. “This suggests that the population’s birth rate is declining,” he says.
In March 2021, he presented his data at a NAMMCO meeting and called for the hunt to stop. But the meeting also heard from opponents of a ban.
Sofie Abelsen, Ministry of Fisheries, Game and Agriculture, Greenland, highlighted the cultural and nutritional importance of narwhals to communities on the east coast. Most villages are remote and only receive cargo ships supplying groceries once or twice a year, meaning narwhal meat remains a vital source of nutrients and income.
Danielsen, one of two hunters from East Greenland at the NAMMCO meeting, criticized scientists for their counting methods and unwillingness to cooperate with the communities they study. The biologists hadn’t been looking in the right places for their investigations, he said. “We see very many narwhals – older people say there are more now than before.”
The NAMMCO management committee has decided not to support a call for zero hunting quotas. Rather than ban hunting, the government is implementing a gradual reduction in quotas – from 50 narwhals per year in 2020 to 20 in 2023. Although towards the end of 2021 the government increased quotas in eastern Greenland of 20.
Last year, Greenland’s parliament approved a recount of narwhals in the region, scheduled for this summer, which will involve hunters. But Fernando Ugarte, a Mexican biologist who heads the marine mammal department at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, said a new census is unlikely to change his recommendation. “This stock is unique and in order for it to be preserved, hunting must stop,” he says.
Without a ban, there is about a 30% chance that narwhals will be extinct in East Greenland by 2025, rising to 74% by 2028, according to an analysis by Hobbs. Last year eastern hunting districts did not catch enough narwhals to fill their quotas, Ugarte says, which he takes as a sign the mammals are not as plentiful as hunters claim . Hunters, however, blame the unusual presence of orcas in the fjords this year, which could have scared off the narwhals.
Communication between hunters and biologists has reached an all-time high, Danielson says. Before the researchers suggested a ban, some hunters cooperated with their studies, supplying them with narwhals and scavenging the satellite tags researchers use to monitor the animals.
But Danielsen says scientists have failed to show respect for local communities. He is particularly upset by an incident in 2018 when he says scientists fired seismic air cannons (which release compressed air to send sound waves through the water) into a local fjord as part of a study of the response of narwhals to marine noise pollution without informing hunters. . Danielsen says the noise kept the narwhals from swimming in this fjord.
“We could cooperate [with the scientists] if both groups were equally respected,” he says, adding that the researchers, most of whom are not from Greenland, do not understand the local way of life.
Heide-Jørgensen, who led the airgun experiments, says that the noise produced by the equipment produced less noise than the hunters’ motorboats, and that although the narwhals were frightened during the experiment, they began to behave normally and then returned to the fjords.
The objective is not to ban hunting forever, he says, but to safeguard populations. “We are researching to make sure the resources will still be available in the future,” he says. “So the hunt can continue.”
But Danielsen fears that once the quota is set to zero, it will be a long time before it goes back up and the consequences are lasting: “Our descendants will never learn to catch a narwhal and [they will] forget culture.
The conflict between hunters and scientists is not new to Greenland, according to Aviaja Hauptmann, a microbiologist at the University of Greenland. Half Danish and half native Inuk, she is one of a surprisingly small number of the country’s scientific researchers from Greenland. She says the root of the problem is the inability of scientists to understand the traditional knowledge of hunters.
“There’s this perception that hunters need to understand the science,” Hauptmann says. “But there is not the same recognition that scientists need to understand the lives, knowledge and experiences of hunters.”