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Save the whales? Inuit whalers wary of Whaling Commission quotas

Corinne Purtill
Tony Hopfinger photo

SERMILIK FJORD, Greenland — On the rocky shore of a quiet inlet whose local name translates to The Place Where We Used to Hunt in the Springtime, Inuit men with long knives butcher a whale corpse. An hour earlier, a team of hunters in five two-man boats had surrounded the minke whale in this icy fjord off Greenland’s east coast and shot it with rifles. They tied the animal to a boat and dragged it to the inlet. A call went out on the radio — anyone who’d come help with butchering could take home a cut of the meat.

The whale steams when cut open in the chilly evening air. Working quickly but methodically, a dozen men peel back the skin and carve out basketball-sized cubes of meat, each heavy enough that a single man strains to lift it. Bullets plucked from the carcass are flicked onto the rocks.

The throat is the tastiest part, says Julius Nielsen, 35, a hunter from the nearby town of Tasiilaq who piloted his boat to the inlet when he heard the radio call.

He shaves a long piece of skin from the inner curve of the whale’s tail for a snack. It tastes like cold salted rubber.

Despite their friendliness, the men are wary of a journalist’s presence. Whale hunting is an exceptionally sensitive issue in Greenland, one of a handful of countries where whaling is still practiced. When the International Whaling Commission banned the activity in 1986, it made an exception for “aboriginal subsistence whaling.” Quotas were set for indigenous communities that rely on whales for their diet or cultural practices.

Nevertheless, the commission stripped Greenland of its annual quota in 2012 amid concerns the sale of whale meat had spread beyond the indigenous local market to tourists, supermarkets and exporters. In response, Greenland set its own quota of 216 whales — slightly more than the 211 animals once permitted by the IWC. Denmark — of which Greenland is a semi-autonomous territory, and which represents Greenland at the IWC — has threatened to withdraw from the commission next year if the two parties can’t reach a solution.

With a small population of 57,000 people spread across a vast and often impassable terrain, Greenland’s various regions different widely from one another.

Whaling habits are no exception. Residents of west Greenland killed almost 150 minke whales last year, according to the IWC. Sparsely-populated east Greenland recorded only four.

“Whales caught [in east Greenland are] slaughtered and distributed in the area where they have been caught, thus are used in a much more traditional way,” said Astrid Fuchs, campaign manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, an advocacy group that investigated Greenland’s expansion of commercial whale meat. “That being said, there are sales of whale meat to places that prepare the meat for tourists as well,” she added, “although the locals claim that they depend on such sales in order to be able to afford necessary goods for their everyday life.”

Back at the fjord, butchering the whale takes several hours. A pot of fresh whale meat stew bubbles on a gas-fired camping stove set up nearby. After rinsing the meat in the icy saltwater, the men pack their catch into coolers and garbage bags to take home.

They insist they hunt only for personal consumption or local sale. “We catch only what we need,” Nielsen says as he steers the boat back into the fjord. But many believe that anti-whaling sentiment elsewhere in the world will eventually restrict their ability to catch whales. 

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.