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Greenland and Commercial Whaling

Greenland argues that it should be allowed to distribute whale meat via commercial channels and sell it whom it likes
Humpback whale flukes
Humpback whale flukes

WDC has documented the illegal sale of whale meat caught in Greenland to tourists in Copenhagen, Denmark, leading to an EU investogation of this abuse of the moratorium.

Under the argument of securing its future 'food security', the Greenlandic Government argues that because increasingly people in Greenland no longer live in settlements (having moved to the larger towns) but that they still need access to whale meat, and this ‘means that distribution channels had to be established and later on to be kept open.’ [1]

Thai restaurant review of whale meat sold to tourists

The International Whaling Commission sees a clear distinction between Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) and commercial whaling, but Greenland claims that the role of monetary exchange in Greenlandic whaling is 'limited' and not a driver of the whaling activity. Whilst this may have been the case in the past, WDC is increasingly concerned that market forces are indeed begining to drive whaling activity, with whalers catch whales to order.

Greenland admits that distribution companies are involved, but often fails to note that these do have a private profit making stakeholders. It often claims that part of the distribution chain is via a ‘co-operative supermarket chain’ (implying that ‘profits’ are retained for the users of the service) but also admits that there are also ‘two distribution companies that are partially owned by the Greenlandic Government’. 

Supermarket Nuuk, Greenland
Supermarket Nuuk

One of the primary distribution companies has been previously documented as ‘Arctic Green Foods’.

Arctic Green Foods noted itself that part of its role is to assist in the move from subsidised food production to the government’s drive for local commercial sustainabilit[2]. Arctic Green Foods cautioned the Greenlandic government in 2009 that continued commercial pressures have an impact on the cultural and economic sustainability in settlements across Greenland. However, it also noted (at page 14)

'Any commercial company is interested in being able to operate its business without any recourse to public funds’. Arctic Green Foods also notes that it is in competition with supply by local hunters,

‘Arctic Green Food A / S is domestically the largest provider of dried products. Competition in the domestic market are mainly sales from the board, household self-sufficiency by hunting and fishing and imported meat and fish products to the country-localized chains of shops there.’ [Emphasis added].

As noted by the WSPA report ‘Exploding the Myths’[3] when examining both private and government owned retail chains,

Retail sale value was found to be between 2.5 and 20 times higher than prices paid to whalers. Between 60% and 95% of retail sale price was estimated to be processor and retailer margins.’

As such, WDC believes that considerable profits are being introduced into the market distribution chain.

The Greenlandic government has failed to link the issue of the multispecies hunt, overcapacity in the quota and the impact of commercial pressures.

English language advert for whale meat

WDC remains concerned that the very fact that Greenland ‘require’ a quota in excess of actual need due to the argument for an opportunistic hunt will lead to market pressures to take the full quota and then ask for more in the future.

Further context of commercialisation

The Greenlandic government states in its current open letter to the public [4]

'Local sale of whale products whether to hotels, restaurants or anyone coming in to the local open market are allowed by executive order.’ 

Greenland has gone so far as to claim has a fundamental right to sell whale meat to tourists as part of its right to economic development. Greenland says that it is,

‘…meaningless to differentiate between subsistence and commercial hunting as contradictory or mutually exclusive activities…’ [5]

In this same paper IWC/61/12 Greenland seeks to differentiate a new form of ‘local commercialization’.

‘One thing is certain: the distinction, in some quarters, between subsistence and commercial harvest is artificial. The two phenomena intertwine. It is a distinction, which only serves to attempt a neo-colonial control under the verbal cover of protecting endangered species’

‘Talk about commercial vs. non-commercial differentiation is meaningless in Greenlandic context.’

In IWC/61/12 [6], Greenland/Denmark further states,

‘Different definitions of aboriginal or subsistence whaling have been formulated in connection with the work of the International Whaling Commission.

'Greenland is of the principle position, that whaling should not be categorized in different types as long as it is conducted in a sustainable way’

Greenlandic whalers have, over time, directly linked the desire to hunt humpbacks to the potential to begin commercially exporting whale meat.

In a 1995 press report from High North Alliance, the then Chairman of the Greenland Whaler’s and Fishermen’s Union, KNAPK, Anton Siegstad, stated ‘We should work towards the possibility of exporting whale meat’ [7]

 The same statement [8] goes onto say,

 When our home market's demand for whale meat has been met, it is time to consider exporting it

'…The whalers of Greenland have quotas of minke whales and fin whales. The quotas were given pursuant to the International Whaling Commission’s provisions for aboriginal subsistence hunting. These provisions imply that the meat must not be sold on a commercial basis, thereby excluding the possibility of exports. The Whaling Commission has, however, looked through its fingers at the fact that some of the whale meat in Greenland is sold via ordinary domestic distribution channels and can be bought at, amongst other places, the supermarkets in Nuuk. Greenland makes no attempt at hiding this fact. According to the KNAPK, Greenland should have an indisputable right to engage in the commercial utilization of the nation’s most important resources…

The report concludes [9] that ‘Siegstad said that ‘the time was right for working towards securing Greenland a humpback whale quota. Historically, this was the most important species to the whaling communities of Greenland...’

Greenland’s ambitions to utilize and export marine mammal products was further confirmed in September 1997 when Prime Minister Lars Emil Johansen sought to increase exports of commercial seal skins and seal meat. High North Alliance [10] reported that ‘the Great Greenland tanning plant in Qaqortoq has stepped up production in order to meet increasing demand for skins. In 1997 production was estimated [to] exceed 75,000 skins and was expected to reach almost 100,000 next year. The annual catch of seals numbers approximately 150,000-170,000. The most probable market was considered to be Canada, where sealing has increased considerably, and then accounted for way in excess of 200,000 seals a year.’

The report suggested that in addition to the existing sealskin exports, ‘Greenland also hoped to export seal meat, the sale of which today is limited to the domestic market. "Our main consideration is an improvement in conditions for the hunting trade. We intend to discard the romantic and traditional train of thought and provide an opportunity to industrialize the hunting trade," Prime Minister Lars Emil Johansen explained this spring ("Sermitsiak", May 2 1997) and went on to say, "we shall focus on improving the profits gained from seal products."

In a 2007 letter to the Danish Parliamentary Committee on Planning and Environment (PCPE) the North Atlantic Group of Parliamentarians in the Danish Parliament wrote:

"We would rather catch the whales commercially"

The same statement goes onto say 'We would rather catch the whales commercially, like we catch shrimps and halibut, than being reduced to cultural weirdos, who most gratefully are allowed to slaughter a couple of sacred cows, while we are being manipulated by the animal welfare market.’[11]

Supermarket Nuuk

Greenland’s view of whaling as a commercial exercise is further affirmed by the director of Arctic Green Foods, the “leading supplier of Arctic provisions” for both the domestic and export markets.  Tonnes Berthelsen has said that the company he runs is a “profit maximizing company”, and that “it makes no difference whether we are selling cod or whale”.[12] 

Despite a failure to take all of past quotas, in 2003 Greenlandic national radio reported that ‘Greenland is floating in whale meat’[13] The report goes onto say,

‘…but is in shortage of whale blubber. NUKA A/S decided recently to limit the buying from the hunters of whale meat since it has been impossible to sell the large amounts on the home market. But at the same time the whale blubber available is below demands. (…) This has lead NUKA A/S to make contacts to Norway to start exchanging products.

The Norwegians may have our whale meat in exchange for their whale blubber.  However the rules for export of whale meat are strict – therefore NUKA A/S and KNAPK (national association of professional hunters and fishermen in Greenland.) has suggested the formation of a working group that can look at how the rules for import and export of whale products may be eased. (…).’

The Export of Whale Meat from Greenland

The Danish Government views Danes that have been resident in Greenland to have acquired certain Greenlandic rights, including the right to consume whale meat. This right is extended to the families and friends [in Denmark] of …Danish nationals living in Greenland.

The Danish CITES Management Authority (The National Forest and Nature Agency) writes in a letter dated 29th of January 2003 [13]  “…whale meat … import is permitted for non-commercial purposes to Greenlanders resident in Denmark in addition to families and friends [in Denmark] of Greenlanders and Danish nationals living in Greenland”. [Emphasis added]

 In its 2002 statement to the International Whaling Commission, ‘Explanation by Denmark on the transfer of traditional food, including minke whale meat, blubber and mattak to Kalaallit living in Demark’, IWC/54/28, Denmark stated that,

 “…the access to the highly valuated kalaalimerngit (“Greenlanders” food) is in general very limited in Denmark” and that “the transfer or sale of the mentioned products shall not contain any commercial elements”.

meat in supermarket in Nuuk

 In 2011 the amount of west Greenland minke whale meat and beluga whale that a single person (resident as well as nonresident (herboende)) can bring from Greenland into Denmark (the so called “gift-package”) was raised from 5kg to 10kg [15].

It would appear that you only have to live in Greenland for six months to qualify to be able to export more whale meat into Denmark than many Inuit eat in a year

The status “herboende” applies to a person that has lived in Greenland for more than 185 days (six months) and is not restricted to any cultural, national or ethnic designation that we can find. Indeed, the very lack of clarity as to who qualifies to be able to import whale meat from Greenland is both in contravention of Denmark’s and the EU’s responsibilities to the IWC, and is in contravention of promises made by Denmark to the EU and the IWC.

WDC notes that it has presented evidence to the EU and Danish Authorities on three specific known sales of whale meat to non-Greenlanders in Copenhagen in the last few years. The European Commission and the Danish Authorities have an open investigation, with which WDC is cooperating, as to the abuse of existing regulations since the summer of 2012.

The Future

Greenland appears to wish to establish a new form of whaling under the Convention, that lies somewhere between ASW and Commercial Whaling. However, the recent International Court of Justice ruling categorically confirms that any additional form of whaling activity cannot be inferred from the text of the Convention and the Schedule beyond scientific, aboriginal subsistence or commercial [16].

You can understand that, whilst WDC acknowledges that a level of non-profit exchange takes place within Inuit communities within Greenland, the claims and demands of those actually involved in the whaling and their calls to engage in commercial whaling cause us considerable concern.

[1] IWC/65/ASW/X at page 7

[2] Accessed on 22nd June. Available in Danish at:

[4] Whaling in Greenland Accessed on 22nd June 2014, Available at:

[5] Background information in relation to the schedule amendment IWC/61/11 on the request of 10 humpback whales off West Greenland. Submitted by Denmark IWC/61/12

[6] Background information in relation to the schedule amendment IWC/61/11 on the request of 10 humpback whales off West Greenland. Submitted by Denmark IWC/61/12

[7] High North News, no. 10. May 15, 1995 Accessed on 25th April 2009 at

[8] Domestic sales of whale meat in Greenland from 2003 to 2006:  For fin whales, in 2004 15 tons at a value of 270,000 kroner were reported sold, in 2005 the amount was 9 tons at a value of 162,000 kroner.  Pilot whale: 15 tons reported in 2004 for a value of 218,000 kroner. For beluga: in 2003, 8 tons at 279,000 kr, and in 2006, 1 ton at 74,000 kr. For narwhal, in 2003, 27 tons at 1,401,000 kr; in 2004, 13 tons at 713,000 kr; in 2005 6 tons at 335,000kr; in 2006 11 tons at 653,000 kroner.  For minke whale, in 2003, 74 tons at 1,328,000 kroner; in 2004, 64 tons at 1,149,000 kroner; in 2005 73 tons at 1,308,000 kroner, and in 2006, 145 tons at 2,429,000 kroner.   (Source: Indhandling af kod af land-og havpattedyr I tons, 2003-2006, table 12 I Fiskeri og Fangst: 2007:02, Gronlands Statistik. June 2007.)

[9] ibid

[12] KNR, “WSPA: Arctic Green Food misbruger hvalkvota”, 19 June 2009.

[13] Extracts from the website, the national radio KNR, on 6 of December 2002 quoted in Hjarsen T, (2003) ‘Greenland’s International Obligations, WWF Denmark

[14] Hjarsen T, (2003) ‘Greenland’s International Obligations, WWF Denmark

[16] Whaling in the Antarctic (Australia v Japan: New Zealand intervening) Judgment of 31 March 2014. Para 46 paragraph 229