The final hunt? Future in peril for ‘the unicorn of the ocean’

Age Hammeken Danielsen has hunted narwhals since he was a toddler. He and his father would journey alongside Greenland’s fjords on a small motorboat, armed with rifles and harpoons and wearing polar-bear fur trousers and sealskin boots to insulate them in opposition to the freezing climate.

Danielsen, now 33, is a licensed hunter in Ittoqqortoormiit, a remote settlement of 345 people in east Greenland. Narwhals are his essential supply of earnings. Generally known as “the unicorns of the ocean” for his or her lengthy spiralled tusks, they’re a Greenlandic delicacy. Uncooked, diced narwhal pores and skin and blubber, referred to as mattak, is usually served on particular events.

Mattak, a mixture of diced narwhal pores and skin and blubber, is a delicacy in Greenland. {Photograph}: Sofia Mountinho

However the urge for food for the marine mammals is inflicting battle between scientists, who say searching should be banned to guard populations of the cetacean in east Greenland from collapsing, and hunters, who accuse scientists of disregarding their tradition and deep understanding of the ocean.

Narwhals are present in Arctic waters principally round Greenland and Canada, and are estimated to quantity about 120,000 globally. These elusive animals face threats, together with noise pollution from ships, which may disturb their navigation and talent to search out meals, in addition to warming waters resulting from international heating. Because the ice melts, they lose their habitat and meals.

Greenland’s authorities launched quotas for searching narwhal for the primary time in 2004, and in addition banned the profitable export of their tusks. Narwhal meat is now the hunters’ most commercially prized product, and is distributed across the nation from the searching districts to be offered in Fb teams and supermarkets, the place it can fetch 500 Danish kroner (£57) a kilo.

But, regardless of searching restrictions, populations are plummeting, in response to surveys by the Greenland Institute of Pure Assets, a authorities advisory physique that displays the surroundings. In 2008, surveys estimated there have been about 1,900 narwhals in Ittoqqortoormiit, the primary searching location in east Greenland. On the final depend within the space, in 2016, the inhabitants was put at about 400.

Scientists estimate that at this time the three searching websites within the east – Ittoqqortoormiit, Tasiilaq and Kangerlussuaq fjord – have not more than 600 narwhals mixed.

A map of three narwhal hunting areas in east Greenland

The Greenland Institute of Pure Assets has warned that narwhals are at excessive threat of extinction in east Greenland and final 12 months suggested a ban on searching within the three areas.

“The inventory will disappear if the searching continues at any degree,” says Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, a biologist on the institute, who has been learning and monitoring narwhals for 20 years.

Scientists began noticing one thing mistaken with the narwhal inhabitants in 2014, says Heide-Jørgensen, when for the primary time a narwhal beforehand tagged for a research was hunted. As a result of narwhal populations had been comparatively massive, hunters had not caught tagged whales earlier than. But it surely began occurring extra regularly, he says, suggesting the inhabitants was shrinking. “If you happen to hold catching the identical whales on a regular basis, and there are usually not that lots of them, in fact, there’s a downside,” he says.

Narwhals are usually not reproducing quick sufficient to maintain the inhabitants, says Roderick Hobbs, a biologist who chairs a working group on east Greenland narwhals inside the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), a global conservation physique.

The proportion of pregnant feminine narwhals caught has been dropping since 2011, in response to Hobbs’s evaluation of hunters’ stories, reaching zero in 2016 and 2017 in two of the three searching districts. “That implies that the birthrate for the inhabitants is down,” he says.

In March 2021, he introduced his knowledge at a NAMMCO assembly, and referred to as for a halt to searching. However the assembly additionally heard from opponents of a ban.

A hunter stands up in a boat to shoot at a narwhal while another person holds on to a line attached to the whale
An Inuit hunter finishes off a narwhal. {Photograph}: Cavan Pictures/Alamy

Sofie Abelsen, from Greenland’s Ministry of Fisheries, Looking and Agriculture, emphasised the cultural and dietary significance of narwhals for communities on the east coast. A lot of the villages are distant and solely obtain cargo ships supplying groceries a few times a 12 months, that means narwhal meat stays an important supply of vitamins and earnings.

Danielsen, certainly one of two hunters from east Greenland on the NAMMCO assembly, criticised scientists for his or her counting strategies and lack of willingness to cooperate with the communities they research. Biologists had not been trying in the fitting locations for his or her surveys, he stated. “We see very many narwhals – outdated folks say that there are extra now than earlier than.”

The NAMMCO administration committee determined to not help a name for zero searching quotas. Fairly than ban searching, the federal government is implementing a gradual discount in quotas – from 50 narwhals a 12 months in 2020 to twenty in 2023. Though in direction of the tip of 2021, the federal government increased quotas in east Greenland by 20.

Final 12 months, Greenland’s parliament accredited a recount of narwhals within the area, scheduled for this summer season, which is able to contain the hunters. However Fernando Ugarte, a Mexican biologist who heads the Greenland Institute of Pure Assets’ division for marine mammals, says a brand new census is unlikely to vary its suggestion. “That inventory is exclusive and for it to be preserved, searching ought to cease,” he says.

And not using a ban, there’s about a 30% risk that narwhals will grow to be extinct in east Greenland by 2025, rising to 74% by 2028, an evaluation by Hobbs discovered. Final 12 months the jap searching districts didn’t catch sufficient narwhals to fill their quotas, says Ugarte, which he sees as an indication that the mammals are usually not as considerable because the hunters declare. Hunters, nonetheless, blame the bizarre presence of killer whales within the fjords this 12 months, which could have scared the narwhals away.

A man carves up a narwhal in the shallows with the sea turned red from blood
An Inuit hunter cuts up a narwhal caught utilizing a harpoon from a kayak. {Photograph}: Louise Murray/Alamy

Communication between hunters and biologists has reached an all-time low, Danielson says. Earlier than the researchers steered a ban, some hunters cooperated with their research, offering them with narwhals and retrieving the satellite tv for pc tags researchers use to observe the animals.

However Danielsen says the scientists haven’t proven respect for native communities. He’s notably upset by an incident in 2018 when he says scientists fired seismic airguns (which launch compressed air to ship sound waves by way of the water) in an area fjord as a part of a study into narwhals’ response to marine noise pollution with out informing the hunters. Danielsen says the noise has stopped the narwhals from swimming in that fjord.

“We might cooperate [with the scientists] if each teams had been revered equally,” he says, including that the researchers, most of whom are usually not from Greenland, don’t perceive the native lifestyle.

Heide-Jørgensen, who led the airgun experiments, says the noise produced by the tools produced much less noise than the hunters’ motorboats, and that whereas the narwhals had been scared throughout the experiment, they started to behave usually and returned to the fjords afterwards.

The goal is to not ban attempting to find ever, he says, however to safeguard the populations. “We do analysis to make it possible for the assets will nonetheless be out there sooner or later,” he says. “So the hunt can proceed.”

However Danielsen fears that after the quota is about at zero, it will likely be a very long time earlier than it rises once more and the implications could possibly be long-lasting: “Our descendants won’t ever discover ways to catch a narwhal and [they will] overlook the tradition.”

The battle between hunters and scientists is nothing new in Greenland, in response to Aviaja Hauptmann, a microbiologist on the College of Greenland. Half Danish and half indigenous Inuk, she is certainly one of a startlingly small variety of the nation’s scientific researchers who’re from Greenland. She says the foundation of the issue is scientists’ failure to know hunters’ conventional data.

“There’s this notion that the hunters have to know the science,” Hauptmann says. “However there’s not the identical acknowledgment that the scientists have to know the lives, the data and the experiences of the hunters.”

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