Greenland: “Whales are for Tourists, Not for Food”

[Photo by David Mark via Pixabay]

by Mikkel Schøler, CEO of

Though zonally restricted, Greenland’s first decision to partially ban whaling is a sign times are changing. For some it signals the loss of Indigenous Inuit culture. For others it is a sign of new jobs and income on the way.

In a landmark decision, a majority in the municipal council of Kommuneqarfik Sermersooq in Greenland has voted to ban whaling for humpbacks within the Nuuk fjord system. This is a watershed moment for Greenland, which has fought hard in the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for decades over the right to continue Indigenous peoples’ subsistence whaling.

Today, Greenland catches a number of large whales in accordance with the recommendations set by the IWC Scientific Committee. Whaling has attracted criticism from environmental organisations, with Sea Shepherd amongst the most vocal, though mostly focusing on pilot whale hunts in the Faroe Islands.

For the Inuit in Greenland, whaling is more than simply a source of income for the lucky hunters that get the right to a whale– for the smaller allowable catches through drawing lots. It is a feast for the entire settlement when a whale is landed. Hunting and eating whale meat and blubber is part culture and part subsistence. Accessing the vitamins in the blubber of specific whales has been essential to Inuit through the centuries.

Times are changing, though.

With the Siumut-led government coalitions building new international and regional airports in Greenland, the idea is to attract more tourists through stopover flights, copying the Icelandic model, and to develop this industry which holds such a huge amount of potential.

As the capital of Greenland, Nuuk holds an attraction like few other places in Greenland. With a bustling cultural and culinary scene, the national museum and a fjord system that along with its untouched mountains spans roughly 10.000 km2, the potential for increased tourism is staggering.

In the summer, whales migrate to the fjord system to take advantage of the bountiful fish and plankton found here. For some of the whales, it is an activity repeated throughout their lives.

Particularly some of the playful and curious humpback whales return to the same places every year, making it easy for tourism operators to offer whale-watching tours for tourists.

However, whalers also know that the humpbacks return to the same parts year after year, meaning a depletion in the numbers of individual fixed-site whales.

These deliberations led the municipal council to ban whaling for humpbacks in the Nuuk fjord system on 3 March. The Siumut party, which represents a large number of hunters and fishers, opposed the decision, citing that it was too close to the 6 April municipal elections, and that the new municipal council should be the ones deciding.

The local fishers and hunters association, Nuuk Fisker og Fangerforening (NAPP), also opposed the decision, citing issues of incompatibility with bottom net fishing. However the municipal administration has pointed out that no bottom net fishing application were received in 2019.

At least until after the national elections, also on 6 April, humpback whales are off limits as soon as they enter the Nuuk Fjord system. It remains to be seen, however, whether the increase in tourism expected after the completion of the new airports in Nuuk in 2023 and Ilulissat in 2024 will lead to more restrictions on whaling.

While the whales are certainly worth more alive than dead with the right number of tourists in an area, banning whaling comes at the cost of a way of life that has been part of Inuit culture for millennia.

And no matter how many tourists come, it will not sate that well-known mattak (whale blubber) craving.

If you travel to Greenland and are offered mattak, try it finely sliced with a drop of soy sauce or tamari.

While you can.