Historical images of seabird hunting from Greenland - click to see large size.
There is a long tradition for harvesting seabirds in Greenland. Hunting has always been, and to large extent still is, an important part of what defines “Greenlandic” or ”Inuit” identity. The right to hunt your own food - to harvest from nature’s riches - is considered fundamental in Greenland. Although seabirds may be small in size compared to the other hunted animal species in Greenland, their large numbers make them a significant food source in the Arctic.
Historically seabirds have been a significant food supply and their down or skins has been used as insulation from extreme temperatures. From prehistoric middens it is evident that birds have been important – at least at certain periods of the year. Seabirds have been a reliable and predictable source of meat, eggs, skins and down. Marine mammals, such as whales and seals are the most hunted species in Greenland, but they may roam over large distances, in and out of Greenland waters and may be difficult to locate. Seabirds on the other hand, are characterised by high site fidelity and can be found at the same locations year after year.
Seabirds are still important for subsistence hunting in present-day Greenland. Although, seabird harvest may not be a matter of life and death nowadays, it is nevertheless considered an important activity that takes place all over the country. As the general technical development in Greenland has changed markedly over time, so has the way of harvesting seabirds. From non-motorized watercrafts with a small range and primitive hunting tools in the past, at present times guns and boats with large motors make even the most isolated seabird colonies accessible.
Over the last decades several seabird populations in Greenland have undergone declines. A general concern for the populations has been expressed and management tools have been initiated to bring the overall hunting pressure down. To some degree this has succeeded and harvest levels dropped. Greenland is however still experiencing declines in several seabird populations. Although factors other than hunting have impacted the populations, it is unlikely that the harvest on certain species can be considered sustainable.
King Eider at the local Market in Nuuk, Greenland.
A total of 19 seabird species can be harvested in Greenland. The harvest is regulated by open and closed hunting seasons along with daily quotas (“bag limits”) for some species. Seabirds are protected in the spring and during the breeding season, usually from the beginning of March or May until the end of August or mid-October. Furthermore, disturbance such as shooting and motor boating is prohibited close to the large seabird colonies in Greenland.
The most important Greenland seabird species in terms of harvesting is the Brünnich’s Guillemot. The species is mainly hunted during winter, and although the annual number of harvested birds has been significantly reduced over the last years, the breeding population is still declining most places in Greenland. The second most harvested seabird species, the Common Eider, is recovering after decades of unsustainable hunting. The most abundant seabird species in Greenland, the small-sized Little Auk, is also locally important during the short Arctic summer.
Common Eider hunting, Scoresbysund, East Greenland.