The Little Auk harvest of
Tiny size – huge numbers
The Little Auk Alle alle is a small, black and white seabird, which inhabits the most harsh and remote areas of the High-Arctic. What this seabird is lacking in body size and colours it compensates for by enormous numbers. The colonies of the Little Auk often exceed hundreds of thousands of individuals – in some places even millions. The Thule area in North Greenland is the core breeding distribution of the Little Auk with more than 80% of the world’s population. Here a unique form of seabird harvesting takes place and forms the ingredients of a special local dish - the Kiviaq.
Birds by the millions
The total population of Little Auks in the Thule area is estimated between 30 and 60 million pairs. This is the most numerous seabird species in the North Atlantic. This large number of birds can only be supported by an extremely high productivity of the marine environment – and this is what the North Water polynya provides. Local currents and wind systems keep certain sea areas ice free throughout winter the so-called polynyas. At the onset of spring biological productivity is many times higher than in the ice-covered areas. Trillions of tiny copepods – the principal prey species of the Little Auk - follow an extraordinary large bloom of ice algae and for a short period of time food is super-abundant.
© Images and text by Carsten Egevang
KIVIAQ - fermented Little Auk
The Little Auks have always been important to the local human inhabitants of Thule. It is likely that this small bird with a mass of only 150 grams has been critical to the survival in this harsh, unforgiving environment. But the enormous numbers of birds are only available to the Inuit for a limited period of the year. Preserving and storing the birds has been necessary to make the food last through times of hardship. The kiviaq is prepared by removing the bones and meat from a freshly shot Ringed seal Pusa hispida leaving the blubber attached to the skin. The seal is then stuffed with 300 to 500 Little Auks and stored in a pile of rocks for a period of 3 to 6 months. Under low temperatures the blubber of the seal ferments giving a strong and ripe taste to the birds.
The Little Auk is found in the Thule area in the northern part of Greenland where they come to breed during the short and hectic Arctic summer. The birds arrive from the southern winter quarters in May and leave again in September. During this period the colonies become alive with birds and the sky is painted black with the many birds. The large number of birds at the same place results in bird droppings in huge amount, which is added to the environment close to the colony. The fertilizing effect of bird excreta makes the surroundings of Little Auk colonies lush green in an otherwise barren and nutrient-poor environment. This phenomenon is beneficial to the grass-eating Arctic mammals and often high densities of Musk oxen, Reindeer and Polar Hare are found close to Little Auk colonies.
Still important at present times
Today, hunting of Little Auks are still important in the Thule District. The birds are caught in the colonies using a pole net. Harvesting the birds is an activity in which everybody participates. Where most other types of hunting in Greenland are carried out by male hunters, Little Auk harvesting is carried out by both men and women – old, young and children. Nowadays most of the birds are eaten on cooking, but some are still used for making the traditional kiviaq. Today kiviaq is treasured not so much for storage, but is considered a delicacy saved for important celebrations such as confirmation, weddings and the Greenland National Day. It is a strong-tasting dish and the loose meat from the birds resembles a mixture of strong cheese and liquorice.
The photo reportage “Little Auk harvest in Thule” is part of the project Seabird Harvest in the North Atlantic. Images included in the reportage are the result of several visits by Carsten Egevang to the Thule area between 2011 and 2015. A warm “qujanaq” goes to the hospitable people of Siorapaluk and Savissivik.