Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling in Greenland: The Case of Qeqertarsuaq Municipality in West Greenland


  • Richard A. Caulfield




Anti-harvesting, Beluga whales, Bowhead whales, Co-management, Economic conditions, International Whaling Commission, Inuit, Minke whales, Public opinion, Public participation, Subsistence, Sustainable economic development, Whaling, Wildlife management, Greenland


Policy debates in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) about aboriginal subsistence whaling focus on the changing significance of whaling in the mixed economies of contemporary Inuit communities. In Greenland, Inuit hunters have taken whales for over 4000 years as part of a multispecies pattern of marine harvesting. However, ecological dynamics, Euroamerican exploitation of the North Atlantic bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), Danish colonial policies, and growing linkages to the world economy have drastically altered whaling practices. Instead of using the umiaq and hand-thrown harpoons, Greenlandic hunters today use harpoon cannons mounted on fishing vessels and fiberglass skiffs with powerful outboard motors. Products from minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) and fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) provide both foods for local consumption and limited amounts of cash, obtained through the sale of whale products for Greenlandic foods to others. Greenlanders view this practice as a form of sustainable development, where local renewable resources are used to support livelihoods that would otherwise be dependent upon imported goods. Export of whale products from Greenland is prohibited by law. However, limited trade in whale products within the country is consistent with longstanding Inuit practices of distribution and exchange. Nevertheless, within the IWC critics argue that even limited commiditization of whale products could lead to overexploitation should hunters seek to pursue profit-maximization strategies. Debates continue about the appropriateness of cash and commoditization in subsistence whaling in Qeqertarsuaq Municipality in West Greenland, demonstrating that despite significant changes, whaling is an integral part of Greenland's mixed economy and a vital component of Greenlandic Inuit cultural identity. The social organization of whaling continues to be kinship-based and Greenlandic foods, including whale products, are prominent in local diets and in cultural celebrations. The research reveals that Greenlanders participate in whaling not to maximize profits but in order to sustain cultural traditions and to reduce dependency on tenuous links to the world economy.

Key words: Greenland, Qeqertarsuaq Municipality, aboriginal subsistence whaling, Inuit whaling, mixed economy, minke whale,fin whale, International Whaling Commission