The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Hunting and Utilisation


Belugas have long been a staple food resource for indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic, and continues to be an important part of northern diets today. Historically, the beluga was used for many purposes (Kilabuk 1998, Sejersen 2001). The skin and attached subcutaneous fat was and is considered a delicacy called muktuk (various spellings and pronunciations, including maktaaq and mattak). The meat varied in quality depending on the cut and was eaten raw, dried or cooked, or used as dog food. Sometimes the meat and muktuk was aged and prepared in specific ways to make traditional delicacies. The flippers, organs and intestines were also used as food. The skin from the top part of the whale was cut and prepared to make rope, and the tendons were used to make sinew for sewing. The blubber was rendered to oil and used in traditional lamps (qulliq) as a source of light and heat. Even the bones were used as a food source, construction material and for carving. While many of these uses have been replaced by modern materials, beluga muktuk and meat are still an important and welcome part of the diet in some areas of Arctic Canada and Greenland.

Elders sharing maktaaq Photo Wikimedia 640px Maktaaq 2 2002 08 10

Elders sharing maktaaq, Photo: Wikimedia


The following descriptions of hunting methods in Canada and Greenland were taken from the NAMMCO Expert Group Meeting to Assess the Hunting Methods for Small Cetaceans, held in 2011 (NAMMCO 2012b).

In West Greenland and Canada, beluga are hunted during the spring, summer and fall from small boats, at the ice edge or at ice cracks. In some areas of West Greenland, the kayak is still in use for hunting. In this type of hunting, the animal is approached quietly by one or two kayaks, and the hunter uses a hand-held harpoon with a detachable head (Greenlandic: tuukaak). The harpoon head is attached by a line to a float (Greenlandic: quataq) and then to drag or brake (Greenlandic: miutak) which slows the wounded animal. The hunter then shoots the whale with a high-powered rifle when it resurfaces.

Mads Peter Heide Jorgensen butchering belugas dead bel upv89 Mads Peter Heide Jorgensen dead belugas on ice edge dead bel 2
Photos: M.P. Heide-Jørgensen, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources.


Similar hunting methods are used from small motor boats and from the ice in Greenland and Canada. Ideally, the whale is harpooned first to secure it; it is thereafter dispatched using a rifle. In some cases, the harpoon strike alone is sufficient to kill the animal. In other cases, the beluga is shot first to wound it and slow it down so it can be secured using a harpoon and line.

In the far north of Greenland and in some areas of Canada, nets are used to capture beluga. This technique is used particularly during the dark seasons and in very heavy ice conditions. The beluga swim into the net, become entangled and will drown in they cannot surface. If they remain alive, they are shot by the hunter when the net is checked.

Historically, the catch of beluga or other large animal was divided and shared among participating hunters and their extended families according to complex traditional rules (Inuktitut ningiqtuq, Greenlandic ningerpoq) that helped to ensure that the entire camp or community received a portion of the catch (Wenzel 1995, Sejersen 2001). More recently, the regulation of beluga hunting and changing hunting methods and equipment have led to changes in the sharing system (Sejersen 2001). In Greenland particularly, part of the catch is sold in the open-air markets (Greenlandic Kalaalimineerniarfik, Danish brædtet) present in every village and town. This provides a welcome source of income for hunters. Commercial sale of beluga products is not widespread in Nunavut, although this is starting to change.