The last hunt? Future in peril for ‘the unicorn of the sea’ | Conservation and indigenous people
Age Hammeken Danielsen has hunted narwhals since he was a child. He and his father would travel along Greenland’s fjords on a small motorboat, armed with rifles and harpoons and dressed in polar-bear fur trousers and sealskin boots to insulate them against the freezing weather.
Danielsen, now 33, is a licensed hunter in Ittoqqortoormiit, a remote settlement of 345 people in east Greenland. Narwhals are his main source of income. Known as “the unicorns of the sea” for their long spiralled tusks, they are a Greenlandic delicacy. Raw, diced narwhal skin and blubber, called mattak, is often served on special occasions.
But the appetite for the marine mammals is causing conflict between scientists, who say hunting must be banned to protect populations of the cetacean in east Greenland from collapsing, and hunters, who accuse scientists of disregarding their culture and deep understanding of the sea.
Narwhals are found in Arctic waters mostly around Greenland and Canada, and are estimated to number about 120,000 globally. These elusive animals face threats, including noise pollution from ships, which can disturb their navigation and ability to find food, as well as warming waters due to global heating. As the ice melts, they lose their habitat and food.
Greenland’s government introduced quotas for hunting narwhal for the first time in 2004, and also banned the lucrative export of their tusks. Narwhal meat is now the hunters’ most commercially prized product, and is distributed around the country from the hunting districts to be sold in Facebook groups and supermarkets, where it can fetch 500 Danish kroner (£57) a kilo.
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 there were about 1,900 narwhals in Ittoqqortoormiit, the main hunting location in east Greenland. At the last count in the area, in 2016, the population was put at about 400.
Scientists estimate that today the three hunting sites in 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 east Greenland and last year advised a ban on hunting in the three areas.
“The stock will disappear if the hunting continues at any level,” says Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, a biologist at the institute, who has been studying and tracking narwhals for 20 years.
Scientists started noticing something wrong with the narwhal population in 2014, says Heide-Jørgensen, when for the first time a narwhal previously tagged for a study was hunted. Because narwhal populations were relatively big, hunters had not caught tagged whales before. But it started happening more frequently, he says, suggesting the population was shrinking. “If you keep catching the same whales all the time, and there are not that many of them, of course, there is a problem,” he says.
Narwhals are not reproducing fast enough to sustain the population, says Roderick Hobbs, a biologist who chairs a working group on east Greenland narwhals within the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), an international conservation body.
The percentage of pregnant female narwhals caught has been dropping since 2011, according to Hobbs’s analysis of hunters’ reports, reaching zero in 2016 and 2017 in two of the three hunting districts. “That suggests that the birthrate for the population is down,” he says.
In March 2021, he presented his data at a NAMMCO meeting, and called for a halt to hunting. But the meeting also heard from opponents of a ban.
Sofie Abelsen, from Greenland’s Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture, emphasised the cultural and nutritional importance of narwhals for communities on the east coast. Most of the 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, criticised scientists for their counting methods and lack of willingness to cooperate with the communities they study. Biologists had not been looking in the right places for their surveys, he said. “We see very many narwhals – old people say that there are more now than before.”
The NAMMCO management committee 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 a year in 2020 to 20 in 2023. Although towards the end of 2021, the government increased quotas in east Greenland by 20.
Last year, Greenland’s parliament approved a recount of narwhals in the region, scheduled for this summer, which will involve the hunters. But Fernando Ugarte, a Mexican biologist who heads the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources’ department for marine mammals, says a new census is unlikely to change its recommendation. “That stock is unique and for it to be preserved, hunting should stop,” he says.
Without a ban, there is about a 30% risk that narwhals will become extinct in east Greenland by 2025, rising to 74% by 2028, an analysis by Hobbs found. Last year the eastern hunting districts did not catch enough narwhals to fill their quotas, says Ugarte, which he sees as a sign that the mammals are not as abundant as the hunters claim. Hunters, however, blame the unusual presence of killer whales in the fjords this year, which might have scared the narwhals away.
Communication between hunters and biologists has reached an all-time low, Danielson says. Before the researchers suggested a ban, some hunters cooperated with their studies, providing them with narwhals and retrieving the satellite tags researchers use to monitor the animals.
But Danielsen says the scientists have not shown respect for local communities. He is particularly upset by an incident in 2018 when he says scientists fired seismic airguns (which release compressed air to send sound waves through the water) in a local fjord as part of a study into narwhals’ response to marine noise pollution without informing the hunters. Danielsen says the noise has stopped the narwhals from swimming in that fjord.
“We could cooperate [with the scientists] if both groups were respected equally,” 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 the noise produced by the equipment produced less noise than the hunters’ motorboats, and that while the narwhals were scared during the experiment, they began to behave normally and returned to the fjords afterwards.
The aim is not to ban hunting for ever, he says, but to safeguard the populations. “We do research to make sure that 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 at zero, it will be a long time before it rises again and the consequences could be long-lasting: “Our descendants will never learn how to catch a narwhal and [they will] forget the culture.”
The conflict between hunters and scientists is nothing new in Greenland, according to Aviaja Hauptmann, a microbiologist at the University of Greenland. Half Danish and half indigenous Inuk, she is one of a startlingly small number of the country’s scientific researchers who are from Greenland. She says the root of the problem is scientists’ failure to understand hunters’ traditional knowledge.
“There’s this perception that the hunters have to understand the science,” Hauptmann says. “But there’s not the same acknowledgment that the scientists have to understand the lives, the knowledge and the experiences of the hunters.”