To the bitter end
‘All the Thick-billed Murres [Brünnich's Guillemot], Razorbills, Common and King Eider Ducks, and most of the Black-legged Kittiwakes were gone. Nesting cliffs where Bertelsen had recorded 500,000 murres and 100,000 kittiwakes were vacant of all bird life. The cliffs were still stained from seabird excrement, and ancient grass-covered kittiwake nests remained, but otherwise there was no sign of the thousands of birds that once flourished there.’
So wrote the American biologist Kurt K. Burnham when describing what he had observed sailing through the Uummannaq area in the summer of 2000.
Sailing by boat from Kangerlussuaq/Søndre Strømfjord to Qaanaaq/Thule, Burnham and three colleagues decided to take a closer look at the immensely rich bird life, which had been meticulously recorded 100 years earlier by Alfred Bertelsen, a Danish doctor*.
After eighteen days investigating two hundred and seven of the two hundred and ten bird sites identified by Bertelsen, the four Americans were shocked – everything was gone! Shot to oblivion.
Unfortunately, despite the Americans’ disturbing revelations, the over exploitation of living resources in Greenland is old news – with destruction not simply confined to the Uummannaq area.
Alarm bells have rung since the late 1960’s. Increasingly, though to little avail, biologists and scientists from Denmark, UK, Canada and many other countries have voiced their concerns about the over exploitation of wildlife in Greenland. Both the Danish Colonial Government of the day, and Greenlanders themselves have consistently and stubbornly turned a blind eye.
In today’s modern Greenland hunting, fishing and trapping is taking place in a way that is ecologically and economically unsustainable. The unchecked use of living resources is taking place as if the present generation of Greenlanders were the last inhabitants on planet earth.
Brünnich's Guillemot, Beluga (White Whale), Common Eider, Walrus, Harbour Seal, King Eider, Artic Tern, Atlantic Halibut, Cod, Atlantic Salmon, Scallop – each species is a testimony to the tragic story and the consequences of decades of blind exploitation of living resources.
And this destruction of the biodiversity in Greenland appears likely to continue to the bitter end. Fisherman and hunters deny that a problem exists, and only a handful of politicians seem to have the courage to take the necessary action.
The alarming and most likely outcome is that present catch volumes will lead to even more drastic reductions in stocks, rendering them uneconomic in terms of their contribution to Greenland society. Some species will undoubtedly become extinct.
Additionally, there are intangible losses: Culture, identity and respect from the outside world. Future generations of young Greenlanders will never be able to experience the abundantly rich wildlife that Greenland once offered. Moreover, their fathers will be remembered worldwide as men that squandered everything away. An ancient proud hunting society will be reduced to a bitter shadowland of denial and repression.
The aim of this little book is to document the over exploitation of Greenland’s unique fauna. Supported by factual evidence from Greenland’s own biologists, the book illustrates the already comprehensive destruction. It demonstrates that Greenlanders are not living sustainably – and, seen from a modern perspective, shows that they never have.
If one were to project this negative development a mere 10-20 years into the future then the fate of most animals targeted for hunting will be sealed. As a result, wavering decision makers need to address this issue as a matter of urgency. This book attempts to outline the options available.
What may appear to be a regional problem is of global interest. Greenland’s wildlife is part of humanity’s common heritage and, increasingly, the eyes of the world will be focused on the way Greenlanders manage these living resources. If this book can make a contribution to helping the process start speeding up a little, then it will not have been written in vain.
Finally, I would like to thank the many people in Greenland, Canada, Iceland and Denmark who unselfishly provided information, comments and corrections. Without their encouragement and assistance none of this would have been possible.
Klippinge, Denmark, January 2002
* Alfred Bertelsen was a Danish doctor with an interest in ornithology. He practised and lived in Uummannnaq from 1905–1920 and collected information during his travels through the Uummannaq district (70º03’ to 72º03’N). For fifteen years Bertelsen documented the breeding grounds of many different species including 30 Gyrfalcon nesting sites, as well as the location and population densities of seabirds, divers, gulls and other species. Bertelsen’s research, including maps of the 210 locations, was published under the title The Birds of Uummannaq District (Fuglene i Umánaq distrikt), in the Danish scientific journal, Meddelelser om Grønland, (62:2).