The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Hunting and Utilisation


Walruses have long been a staple food resource for indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic, and continue to be an important part of northern diets today. Historically and currently, all parts of the walrus were used for food or other purposes. Walrus tusks remain a valuable commodity, and are used to make carvings and jewelry for sale, or sold in its raw form. Ivory carvings made from walrus tusk are an important source of income for some communities. The thick, strong hide of the walrus is used to make traditional footwear and strong, flexible rope for use as harpoon lines.


Ungirlak, bundles of walrus skin, meat, blubber and organs, ready for burial to make igunak, or fermented walrus.

Walrus meat is a particularly important winter food for Inuit because it can be procured in large amounts in the late summer and fall, and especially because it can be preserved and stored for long periods of time. Igunaq, or aged, preserved walrus meat, is a well-loved delicacy in parts of Greenland and Nunavut. To make igunaq, the walrus is flensed, so that the skeleton is removed, leaving the skin, fat , meat and some organs in one thick sheet. This sheet is cut into smaller pieces and sewn into large sausage-shaped rolls, called ungirlak. The ungirlak are buried in gravel and left for several months to age and ferment. Experienced hunters know how to choose exactly the right type of gravel for burial, as it must be porous enough to allow some air circulation and to allow the hunter to dig up the bundles during the winter when the ground is frozen. Once dug up, the ungirlak are cut up and washed. Igunak is considered such a delicacy that it is often saved for special occasions and feasts, and traded to other communities that do not have access to walrus (Tigullaraq 2008,


In 2004, NAMMCO hosted a Workshop on Hunting Methods for Seals and Walrus, the report of which provides a wealth of information on walrus hunting techniques. The Workshop on Struck and Lost provides additional information relevant to this topic.



Hunting walrus on an ice floe. Photo: J. Garlich-Miller.

Several methods are used to hunt walruses in Canada and Greenland, depending on the season, the ice conditions and the size of the vessel that is used in open water. A favoured method that is used in the spring and summer is to hunt walrus that are hauled out on ice pans. The hunters approach walrus herds slowly from down-wind so that the animals cannot catch the hunters’ scent. Resting walrus can often be approached very closely in this way. The hunters then shoot the agreed-upon number of animals at close range, taking care to fire simultaneously so that the walrus cannot react to the noise. Large calibre rifles are used and the hunter attempts to kill the animal outright so it cannot re-enter the water. If an injured walrus does reach the water, it is harpooned with an attached line and float, because a dead walrus usually sinks rapidly. Once secured, the walrus is killed and retrieved.


When there is no ice around walruses can be hunted in open water, although this is more difficult and often less successful than hunting them on the ice. Walruses are harpooned with a line and float to prevent them from sinking before a killing shot is attempted. Walrus are agile and quick in the water, however, and it is often difficult to approach them closely enough for a successful harpoon strike. For this reason it is often necessary to shoot the walrus to injure it and slow it down so that it can be approached for harpooning. Once killed, the walrus is towed to shore or to an ice flow for processing, or brought on board if hunting from a larger vessel.

Walrus are also taken from the floe edge or as they breathe in holes in thin, young ice during the winter. In such hunts walrus are first harpooned as they come up for air, then shot through the head when they return to breathe. In floe edge hunts, a small boat is used to retrieve the walrus.

As with all marine mammal hunts, struck-and-lost, the failure to retrieve an animal that has been killed or injured by the hunter, is a serious issue in walrus hunts. The problem is exacerbated because walruses generally sink when killed. Struck-and-lost rates for walrus hunts vary widely, depending on the type of hunt, environmental conditions and hunter experience among other factors, but have been estimated to average from 32% to 42% in Canadian and Alaskan hunts respectively (Orr et al. 1986, Fay et al. 1994). The NAMMCO Workshop on Struck and Lost provided a wealth of information on this topic as well as recommendations to facilitate monitoring and reduce the incidence of struck-and-lost in all types of marine mammal hunts.