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Greenland and 'local consumption'

Greenland has sought to force the IWC to accept that the whole of Greenland should be considered 'local' under IWC rules, thus enabling it to sell whale meat to tourists and non-Inuits.

Greenland claims that it can only apply for a quota based on the total population of residents in Greenland, because it has no way of distinguishing ‘aboriginals’ from ‘non-aboriginals’ despite the fact that in earlier needs statements it has made a claim that was for subsistence hunters only.

In addition, the Greenlandic Government has a classification system by which Statistics Greenland identifies both ‘foreigners’ resident in Greenland and those who have strong family ties to Greenland’ which could be claimed to equate to the IWC’s definition of …others in the local community, or by persons in locations other than the local community with who local residents share familial, social, or cultural ties’.

Thus the issue is one of domestic regulation and controls rather than an apparent legal restriction forcing Greenland to have to not apply for an ASW quota under the current requirements.

The population of Greenland is forecast to decline over the next twenty years, and there appears to be continuing major shifts in residency patterns from settlements to towns and cities, which all affects the level of subsistence hunting practices.

Historically Greenland made its Needs Statement based on the number of subsistence hunters and their need.

In 1989 Greenland claimed, ‘Thus it is safe to conclude that the need for meat which existed at the start of the century has remained constant’.

The total population of Greenland in 1989 was 55,171, yet Denmark made a claim based on the need of only 13,797 hunters then registered. Today this number has dropped to 5305 (in 2012) inclusive of sports licences.

In the last twenty years, as the population and residency dynamics of Greenland have changed, the Greenlandic Government has shifted its stance to claim that whaling is part of a total Food Security policy of meat supply rather than meeting the needs of pure subsistence.

What does the IWC and Greenland mean by 'local consumption'

The Greenland Home Rule Government noted during the 2008 IWC meeting [1] that ‘in the definition [of aboriginal subsistence whaling], the terms ‘local community’ and ‘predominant portion’ are not defined. In its view, Greenland is a local community and that a ‘predominant portion’ would be something above 50%.

Denmark regularly repeats its assertion that the whole of Greenland is ‘a local community’. In doing so, it seeks to imply that the Greenlandic peoples are a homogenous whole. This of course, has a specific resultant meaning when arguing for whale quotas, as its logical conclusion is that ‘all’ citizens of Greenland should be included when calculating whale quotas.

But despite a falling population, Greenland has repeatedly demanded of the IWC an increased quota of large whale species.

Greenland’s demographics have changed dramatically over the last twenty years and will continue to do so, with an increased number of peoples no longer dependent upon subsistence hunting and fishing. 

Between 1993 and 2011 the number of licenced subsistence hunters in Greenland reduced by 49.34% [2].

Whilst the IWC has historically viewed ASW communities as ‘minorities’ within a non-aboriginal majority population, Greenland seeks to define itself as an ‘ASW nation’.

WDC believes that this definition is too open ended and we believe Greenland can, and should seek to meet only the nutritional needs of those native peoples who have a nutritional reliance on whale meat, not those who would like to create a monetary system of exchange out of whaling.

In the early 1980s as the debate about a moratorium on commercial whaling was reaching a head, Petersen et al. [3] on behalf of the Danish and Greenlandic Government, put forward a series of definitions in their arguments for Greenlandic aboriginal subsistence whaling.

In seeking to define subsistence catches the authors offer the following definition,

‘”Subsistence catches” mean catches where the products are clearly intended for local consumption’.

In seeking to define ‘Local Consumption’ they state,

‘The definition suggested in the TCWG on Subsistence Whaling, April 1979, may be used for the Greenland case: “Local consumption means consumption by participants in the harvest, or by others in the local community, or by persons in locations other than the local community with who local residents share familial, social, or cultural ties.”’

The IWC were, of course, in considering what defined aboriginal peoples, looking at peoples such as the Alaskan Inuit, who were, and are, a distinct cultural and ethnic minority in relation to a dominant nation state.

In discussing the issue of economic systems in aboriginal subsistence whaling, the IWC expert panel that met in Seattle, Washington in February 1979, concluded that the example of Alaskan Eskimo whaling had an economic system that emphasizes ‘the distribution, rather than the mere accumulation of surplus’ (Emphasis in original.) [4]

An IWC Resolution adopted in 1979 on the USA’s ASW quota refers to the “needs of the aboriginals ” and affirms this understanding that the IWC should consider the need of the relevant indigenous people for whale meat, not the general population.

 ‘…the Commission also recognizes the importance of accommodating the needs of aboriginal people who are dependent upon whales for subsistence and cultural purposes’ [5] [Emphasis added]

The resolution further notes, ‘importance of the bowhead in the traditional diet’, again emphasising that the take for the native peoples only who had a traditional diet, not for other US citizens.

Whilst the proponents of expansive Greenlandic whaling quote the 1979 Working Group it should be noted that the definitions adopted in 1982 [6] actually state,

Aboriginal subsistence whaling means whaling, for purposes of local aboriginal consumption, carried out by or on behalf of aboriginals, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, social and cultural ties related to a continuing traditional dependence on whaling and on the use of whales.

Local consumption means the traditional uses of whale products by local aboriginal, indigenous or native communities in meeting their nutritional, subsistence and cultural requirements. The term includes trade in items that are by-products of subsistence catches’ [Emphasis added]

Subsistence catches are catches of whales by aboriginal subsistence whaling operations.

In hindsight, the definitions proposed by Greenland and those actually used by the IWC are substantively different.

In discussing the issue of economic systems in aboriginal subsistence whaling, the IWC expert panel that met in Seattle, Washington in February 1979, concluded that Alaskan Eskimo whaling was a good example of subsistence whaling which had an economic system that emphasizes ‘the distribution, rather than the mere accumulation of surplus’ [Emphasis in original] [7].

Thus Greenlandic and Danish proponents fail to note the specific aspects that the IWC believed applied in that subsistence hunting was for ‘for purposes of local aboriginal consumption’ and that only ‘by-products’ should be traded.

This subtle, but very different interpretation of what is meant by aboriginal subsistence whaling has been a problem ever since.

Thus originally, Greenland and Denmark appear to have argued their need for whale meat based solely on the basis of the subsistence need‘almost’ as defined by the IWC but with the basis for a future broader interpretation through what they omitted.

In the recent past they have extended the concept of local need to include all native-born people and indeed, now include non-native peoples (including tourists) in calculating the need for the taking of marine mammals.

The IWC should continue to apply its existing definitions and regulatory international framework. It should challenge Denmark and Greenland to abide by IWC definitions and regulations and not to succumb to a new definition of ASW by Greenland.

[1] Chairman’s Report, 2008, IWC

[2] All data is taken from the annual reports 'Greenland in Figures' available at

[3] Petersen, R., Lemche, E. and Kapel, F.O. Subsistence Whaling in Greenland, TC33/WG/S3

[4] Report of the Cultural Anthropology Panel 1982 In 44 17 above.

[5] IWC 1979-Appendix 4 Bering Sea Bowhead Whales. Available at:

[6] Donavan, G.P. (1982) The International Whaling Commission and Aboriginal Subsistence whaling: April 1979 to July 1981. In G.P. Donavan, ed. Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (with special reference to the Alaska and Greenland fisheries) Rept. IWC, Special Issue 4:79-86

[7] Report of the Cultural Anthropology Panel 1982 cited in Gambell, R. (1993) International Management of Whales and Whaling: An Historical Review of the Regulation of Commercial and Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, ARCTIC Vol. 46, No.2 p97-107 Available at: