Commercial hunt decimates Greenland narwhal, beluga

Home rule government will impose quotas for the first time

By JANE GEORGE

Greenland’s home rule government needs to set harvesting quotas for narwhal and beluga to prevent west Greenland hunters from wiping them out, a researcher says.

“They’re not very happy, but I’m only the messenger. There should be a reduction in the harvest,” said Mads Peter Heide-Joergensen, a researcher with Greenland’s Institute of Natural Resources, in an interview from Disko Bay, Greenland.

Researchers and international marine mammal management bodies say beluga numbers in West Greenland have been cut in half, while the narwhal population there has declined to only 25 per cent of its original size.

And that’s according to the most optimistic estimates.

There may be as few as 1,500 narwhal left — down from a population of about 30,000 not so long ago.

Earlier this month, the home rule government passed legislation allowing it to set quotas for the narwhal and beluga harvests.

“It’s, of course, difficult in Greenland where you had free quotas on narwhal and beluga up to now,” said Lars Witting, a researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.

Witting and others are recommending a catch of 135 narwhal and 100 beluga for West Greenland – less than one-quarter of what has been caught for both species in recent years.

Hunts along the populated western coast have increased due to boats with long-range capabilities, commercial processing plants for beluga and narwhal, and a new focus on hunts that target two species at the same time, such as narwhal and halibut.

Greenland is supposed to base its quotas on advice from the Canadian-Greenlandic Commission on Narwhals and Belugas as well as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, an international body for cooperation on the conservation, management and study of marine mammals in the North Atlantic.

But Ole Henrich, a home rule government official, said his government won’t wait for upcoming meetings of the Canadian-Greenlandic Commission on Narwhals and Belugas and the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission before determining quotas.

“We think the government [officials] can decide by themselves,” Henrich said in an interview from Nuuk.

Henrich also questioned the accuracy of recent grim population estimates, saying these needed more “checking up”. He suggested quotas set by the home rule government could be above the recommended numbers.

But researchers who did the most recent aerial surveys of narwhal in 2001 and 2002 stand by their results. These aerial surveys relied on two huge digital cameras that continuously photographed the ocean surface in northwest Greenland.

“The surveys are accurate, although they don’t take into account all variations — but they’re sufficiently accurate to allow us to draw conclusions about the trend. It does represent a real decline in the numbers,” Heide-Joergensen said.

Heide-Jorgensen was reached near Disko Island, where he was getting samples from 14 narwhal that had been hunted in their wintering grounds.

“In that area, we’ve also seen a drop in numbers, although it’s not so dramatic,” he said.

Large schools of beluga, with more than 50 or more animals, were often sighted during a 1981-82 aerial survey, when there were about 20,000 beluga in West Greenland, but a 1999 survey showed most schools had fewer than 10 animals and the beluga population had fallen to about 8,000.

Despite what the aerial surveys say, Greenland’s hunters and its fishing industry want the marine mammal hunt to continue near its current level because it’s much more of a commercial hunt than, for example, in the Eastern Arctic.

Several years ago, nearly 20 tons of beluga mattak were sold in Greenland. The price of mattak in Nuuk is now about $25 a kilo.

When the home rule government wanted to set quotas for narhwal and beluga four years ago, the professional hunters’ union, KNAPK, the Greenland municipal federation, KANUKOKA, and the union representing sports hunters, TPAK, protested, and, under pressure, the quotas were put off until 2002, and, then, postponed again.

In Nunavut, co-management of marine mammals is supposed to protect stocks from commercial and political forces.

In contrast, there are as many as 40,000 narwhal along Baffin Island. Since 1999, an average of 420 narwhal have been harvested every year — less than Greenland takes annually from its depleted population.

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