Hakai Magazine

Whale watching in Greenland
Greenlanders have a legal right to hunt nine humpback whales a year. The Sermersooq municipal council just wants it to happen somewhere else. Photo by Danita Delimont/Alamy Stock Photo

Greenland Votes to Move Whaling Away from Tourists’ Eyes

In a bid to boost the whale watching economy, a new law bars Greenlanders from taking humpback whales near the capital.

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by Regin Winther Poulsen

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Like his father before him, Anton Egede hunts whales and fish for a living. As the captain of the Sori, a 17-meter boat named after his wife, he sails out from Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, searching for the riches of the Greenland Sea. While his father was primarily a whale hunter turned cod fisherman, Egede is a fisherman who, when given a chance to supplement his income, will harpoon a minke or humpback whale. In 2019 and 2020, Egede killed three humpbacks in the fjord outside Nuuk, selling each for up to US $16,000. But a new law, passed in April, means that harvest will no longer be possible.

A fully grown humpback whale is around 15 meters long and can weigh up to 30 tonnes. Humpbacks are photogenic animals, jumping out of the water and hitting the surface with their bluish-gray tails. Watching humpbacks is great for sightseeing tourists. And that’s why Sermersooq, the largest municipality in Greenland, has banned killing humpback whales in Nuuk Fjord. The decision was welcomed by the nascent tourism industry, but angered the small number of remaining whale hunters in the city, like Egede.

For about 4,000 years, the Inuit in Greenland sustainably hunted humpback whales. Then, mainland Europeans, in their pursuit of whale oil, pushed the whale’s population to the edge of extinction. Killing humpback whales was banned in Greenland in 1986, but in 2010 Greenlanders regained the right to hunt humpbacks with a quota of nine whales per year.

The new ban does not stop Greenlanders from hunting their quota of humpbacks—it only states that it can’t be done in Nuuk. Nevertheless, Kaare Winther Hansen, with the World Wide Fund for Nature’s department in Nuuk, calls the decision a “paradigm shift.” This is the first time Greenlanders have prioritized tourism over whale hunting, he says.

To Michael Rosing, a former operator of a whale watching charter boat and the former member of the capital municipal council who introduced the ban, “the whales are worth much more as tourism objects than meat.”

Like Egede, Rosing enjoys eating whale meat and doesn’t have anything against hunting whales. But Rosing says whale sightings declined with the resumption of the whale hunt. A study from 2014 suggests that killing a few whales can cause a huge drop in how often you can see them in the fjord. The study showed that six whales that dwelled in the fjord all summer were responsible for the vast majority of sightings. Rosing thinks the effects on the growing tourism industry are too great compared to how much a few whalers can earn from the hunt. “Why should many actors in the tourism industry lose money because someone wants to earn money from killing a whale?” he says.

Marine biologists from the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources believe the decision will have a real effect on how many whales will visit the water near Nuuk each summer. Echoing Rosing, Fernando Ugarte, head of the Department of Birds and Mammals at the institute, says there has been a clear drop in the number of whales that can be seen in the fjord compared to when he moved to Nuuk 15 years ago, even though there has been a limited amount of whale hunting in the area. Some of the whales that used to stay in Nuuk throughout the summer to feed have been killed, says Ugarte, and he hopes the ban can make the fjord a safe haven for new whales.

“It doesn’t matter for the population of humpbacks as a whole. There are still a couple thousand humpback whales coming to Greenland every year,” Ugarte explains. “But it will matter for the possibility of seeing humpback whales in the field.”

To Egede, however, the ban is an attack on ancient Greenlandic hunting culture—“If we didn’t have hunting culture, we wouldn’t have survived,” he says—and a sign that Nuuk is changing.