A Whale of an Issue: No Consensus on Greenland Hunting Regulations

Cara Schulte, JHU:

For decades, Greenland (among other nations) has been allowed to continue whale-hunting practices despite the 1986 moratorium. In 2012, they lost this privilege.

In 1982 the International Whaling Convention (IWC) decided to end all commercial whaling practice immediately after the 1985/1986 season on account of rapidly declining whale populations.[1]

Greenland, a self-governing division of the Kingdom of Denmark, has practiced whaling for centuries; Inuit hunters have been harvesting whale meat for over 4,000 years.[2] With this inherent cultural significance in mind, the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling created a loophole of sorts for Greenlanders, and similar indigenous peoples, to continue hunting the mammals.

Aboriginal subsistence whaling, as defined by the IWC, is a cultural or nutritional practice. This clause acknowledges the distinction from commercial whaling and thus allows indigenous peoples specific privileges on account of their long-standing social traditions. This privilege is granted with the intention of benefiting local peoples and allowing them to continue cultivating their cultural traditions.

About two years ago, it was revealed that Greenland’s whaling practices were not simply benefitting the indigenous peoples; they were exporting whale meat to Denmark. (I, myself, can vouch for this, as I was able to both purchase and consume whale meat on the island of Greenland and on the Danish mainland.) This type of activity has been viewed as “commercial” whaling and thus Greenland fell out of the aboriginal subsistence clause, losing its privileges and protection, becoming subject to the moratorium.

As technology, politics and societal values continue to change, by definition, so does culture. Given these dynamic concepts, it is clear that whaling in Greenland is also transforming. Recently, they have claimed that their “need” is increasing, and they have implemented new techniques in order to increase the efficiency of their hunts.[3] Though some argue that this is simply another way local peoples are taking advantage of renewable resources in the area, the trading activities of Greenland regarding their catches have come into question.

A September article featured in the Copenhagen Post claims “Danish support helps Greenland to finally land its whaling quotas.” However, according to Birthe Møller, who previously served as Secretary at the Danish Parliament, “public opinion is very much divided” concerning this particular issue and the status of Greenland in general. The Danish peoples constantly find themselves fighting over Denmark’s (potential and practiced) power over Greenland.

Though, perhaps, Greenland has found political support in its whaling endeavors, the citizens of Denmark are not always in agreement. One local professor, who wished not to be named, described Greenland as a child of sorts; Danes generally understand that Greenland is not yet mature enough to survive on its own and thus feel obligated to support it. Many people tend to feel guilty about historic events and the colonial power that Denmark once exercised over Greenland. This, however, is no excuse for the nation to be exempt from basic environmental regulations.

The issue is very present in Copenhagen, which presents itself as a hub of intellectual energy. About two months ago, the UC Institute of Law hosted a conference that addressed Arctic Exploitation of Natural Resources and the responsibilities and liabilities that came along with these opportunities.

As academics tend to view the issue as one of cultural preservation, and perhaps geopolitical expansion, more radical activist groups have other ideas; the decision has received backlash from organizations like the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), who believe that the EU Commission should comply with its commitments under both European Union and international environmental law before placing emphasis on its own political interests in “pursuing its agenda for more control over EU Member States.”[4] The WDC, in conjunction with the Animal Welfare Institute, have launched an investigation to examine the slaughter of whales to attract tourists to the area.[5]

From a technical standpoint, the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling is rather vague; the text itself does not explicitly quantify any of the key terminology. Though perhaps there is a certain level of commercialization creeping into the hunting practices in Greenland, the schedule of the report does not make claim against any of the current practices.

Legal issues aside, it is clear that public opinion in Denmark, particularly Copenhagen, is at a stalemate. Whether we turn to reference political autonomy or environmental consciousness, ultimately, the people are split. It is curious, then, that the Copenhagen Post felt it necessary to publicize the governmental relationship between the two nations while making no reference to the blatant public division on the issue.

Ultimately, however, we see that the details of the argument are moot, as Greenland will be allowed to hunt whales throughout the year thanks to supposed political support from Denmark.


[1] “ABORIGINAL SUBSISTENCE WHALING.” Whales. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, n.d. Web.

[2] Caulfield, Richard A. Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling in Greenland: The Case of Qeqertarsuaq Municipality in West Greenland. Fairbanks: U of Alaska Fairbanks, Dept. of Rural Development, 1991. 3-5. Print.

[3] Gambel, Ray. “International Management of Whales and Whaling: An Historical Review of the Regulation of Commercial and Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling.” Arctic Institute of North America 46 (1993): 97-107. JSTOR. Web.

[4] “WHALING IN GREENLND.” Whales. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, n.d. Web.

[5] “WDCS Investigation Shows Greenland is Killing Whales to Feed Tourists.” Whales. 26 June 2012. Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, n.d. Web.


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