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Professional hunters provide food for Greenlanders

“It is very convenient if you can buy whale meat or muktuk or reindeer meat in nice packages”


In Nunavut, the sale of fresh caribou, fish, whale and walrus happens largely out of sight if it happens at all, but in Greenland, country food is widely available: in outdoor markets where Inuit hunters sell their produce directly, or in the freezer aisle of the grocery store.

“In each town, you find a big marketplace where you will be able to buy seal meat or whale meat, muktuq, and whatever you need,” said Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, a professor at the Institute of Geography and International Development studies at Roskilde University in Denmark.

The outdoor markets — where hunters go to sell their products — have been operating for 150 years.

As in Nunavut, store foods began to take the place of country foods in the diet of Greenlanders in the 1970s and 1980s, especially for younger people, who either lost the skills to prepare their own country food from scratch, or had no time or inclination to do it themselves.

But that trend was reversed when country foods were introduced in supermarkets, neatly cut up and packaged just like chicken, beef or pork, at the end of the 1980s.

“Suddenly [country foods] became a central part of the diet as it is today, but mainly because it’s available in that form,” said Rasmussen.

The majority of Greenlanders are not hunters, Rasmussen said, but people who work in offices or shops.

“It is very convenient if you can buy a nice piece of whale meat or muktuk or reindeer meat in nice packages, ready cut, ready for preparation.”

Hunters make a living

Country food sales also give the remaining hunters a way to make a living doing their traditional activities.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 Greenlanders are full-time hunters and fishers. About 80 per cent of their income comes from commercial fisheries, with the rest coming from furs (which earn a guaranteed price at a tannery in Qaqortoq) and meat sales.

These can be sales to a processor or cannery, or from sales to individuals at markets, to institutions such as schools and old age homes, or to restaurants.

In Greenland, people must hold professional licences to hunt big game such as polar bears, whales, narwhal and walrus.

Those licences are only granted to hunters who demonstrate that 50 per cent of their income comes from hunting and fishing each year. In turn, professional hunters are responsible for about 70 per cent of the sea mammals hunted.

Other Greenlanders can get “leisure licences” to hunt and fish, which carry some restrictions.

For example, leisure hunters can catch as many fish as they want, and sell them in local fish markets, but they are not allowed to apply for a quota to sell to a fish plant.

Leisure hunters can only hunt certain types of birds, and they are not allowed to sell reindeer (as caribou are called in Greenland) during reindeer season.

“The idea, of course, is that the leisure time hunters are hunting for their own and their family and not for commercial purposes,” Rasmussen said. “That’s saved for the professional hunters.”

And preserve traditions…

Having a group of professional hunters also helps Greenland to preserve an important part of its identity.

“There is an important cultural element in this,” Rasmussen said.

“People are concerned about using local products, and eating country food, but they also want to live a modern life. I think in Greenland they have developed a nice duality. They are living in the modern world but also enjoying traditions. For them there is no conflict in that.”

Recently, Greenlanders reacted strongly to the news that the numbers of professional hunters are in decline, which Rasmussen published in a report this spring.

Many of the remaining hunters live below the international poverty line, Rasmussen found, due to falling prices for their goods and for some, an inability to keep investing in new and modern equipment.

The Home Rule government immediately responded with a suggestion that a school should be created where hunters can learn the skills they need to modernize, and operate businesses as professionals.

Part of the debate centres on how hunters should be allowed to hunt.

Until recently, snowmobiles were banned for hunting purposes, and Rasmussen found just 136 professional hunters owned machines.

Instead, hunters use dog teams and sleds, according to rules set by municipalities and the Home Rule government.

It is only recently that restrictions have been relaxed. For instance, hunters are now allowed to use snowmobiles to transport whale meat after a hunt.

Greenlanders, it appears, may be willing to adapt their traditions to encourage more young people to carry them into the future.

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