Subsistence Whaling in Greenland

A self-governed territory of Denmark, Greenland is situated between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. Denmark is a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and nationals of both Denmark and Greenland participate at IWC meetings under Denmark’s flag. Denmark submits a request to the IWC for a quota on behalf of the indigenous people of Greenland, under an exemption to the IWC commercial whaling moratorium that allows for the hunting of large whales to satisfy native peoples’ subsistence and cultural needs.

Greenland natives hunt minke, bowhead, fin, and humpback whales under this exemption, known as an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quota. One of West Greenland’s hunts involves the use of penthrite grenade harpoons as the primary and secondary killing methods. Other West Greenland hunts use either the grenade harpoon or rifle as the primary and always a rifle as a secondary killing method. The whale hunts in East Greenland use only rifles as both the primary and secondary killing methods.

At the June 2012 Annual Meeting of the IWC, Denmark sought not only to renew, but to increase the ASW quota for Greenland natives. In response, many countries raised questions about the extensive commercial use of whale meat in Greenland, concerns that had been brought to light in a joint report by AWI and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Governments also pointed to Greenland’s poor compliance with IWC regulations (see Fall 2012 AWI Quarterly), and urged Denmark to reconsider its request for an increased quota. Despite the concerns raised, Denmark and Greenland refused to compromise and reduce the number of whales sought, even to numbers previously approved by IWC parties. As a result, the entire request was voted down, and when 2012 drew to a close, Greenland’s whaling quotas expired.

In early January 2013, Greenland's Ministry for Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture announced that it would self-allocate a whaling quota for 2013 and 2014, and that it planned to take more humpback and fin whales than under its previous IWC quota. Greenland began hunting without an approved IWC quota in the spring of 2013.

In June of 2013, after extensive debate in the Danish Parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would withdraw from the IWC as of 1 January 2014, unless a solution to Greenland’s lack of an official quota can be found. This announcement was countered by a statement from Greenland’s Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture, indicating that Greenland would prefer to remain within the IWC.

A legal analysis commissioned by AWI concluded that Greenland’s action in self-allocating a quota clearly violates the IWC’s treaty, and that the only way Greenland can legally hunt large whales is by securing the IWC's approval. AWI is engaging with colleagues and IWC parties to demand that Denmark and Greenland follow the IWC rules. Greenland’s current hunts can only be considered pirate whaling.

The problems associated with the Greenland hunts are numerous and include:

  • failure to report times to death to the IWC;
  • failure to provide an up-to-date needs statement that fully and quantifiably documents a justification for the nutritional, subsistence and cultural needs of its indigenous people for great whales;
  • an increasing commerciality of the hunts, with whale meat being routinely sold in over 100 supermarkets, and in tourist hotels and restaurants throughout Greenland;
  • the inclusion of the entire population of Greenland (including non-indigenous people) when calculating per capita need for whale meat;
  • excessive wastage;
  • the exclusion of small cetacean products that also make up part of the subsistence diet of indigenous Greenlanders; and
  • inadequate flensing and processing techniques.