The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Hunting and Utilisation


Narwhals have long been a staple food resource for indigenous peoples throughout the Arctic, and continue to be an important part of northern diets today. 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 were 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 While many of these uses have been replaced by modern materials, narwhal muktuk and meat are still an important part of the diet in some areas of Arctic Canada and Greenland.

J Blair Dunn Narwhal bundles img0023 2 CROP for web Narwhal meat, organs and skin are sewn into bundles then buried in gravel for several months. Photo: J. Blair Dunn, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.


Historically, the catch of narwhals 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). More recently, the regulation of narwhal 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.


Hunting occurs during the open water season from boats, and also from the floe edge during the fall, winter and spring. The timing of the hunt depends on the weather, the nature of the ice, and the movements of the narwhals. The timing of each of these depends on location. For example, Arctic Bay generally has a shorter hunting period (June–September) than Pangnirtung, which may run from March to November (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2013b).

In West Greenland, in the Upernavik, Uummanaaq and Disko Bay areas, hunting occurs generally during the fall and winter (NAMMCO 2013). In the far north of West Greenland, hunters from Qaanaaq sometimes see narwhals in the Smith Sound area in winter and spring (January–June), however, most hunting takes place between May and September with peaks in the months of July and August (Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2013b).

In East Greenland, the majority of the harvest occurs during the summer months (Heide-Jørgensen and Laidre 2009). As with other stocks, the timing of the hunt depends on the movement of the narwhals.

J Blair Dunn hunting camp ice img0030 CROP for web

Narwhal hunting camp on the sea ice. Photo: J. Blair Dunn, Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

J Blair Dunn narwhal butchering img0035 CROP for web

Hunters processing a narwhal. Photo: J. Blair Dunn, Fisheries and oceans Canada.


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 2012).

In West Greenland and Canada, narwhals are hunted during the spring, summer and fall from small boats, or at the ice edge or at ice cracks. In some areas of West Greenland, the kayak is still used for hunting. In this type of hunting, the animal is approached quietly by one or two kayaks, and the hunger 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 a drag or brake (Greenlandic: miutak) which slows the wounded animal. The hunter then shoots the whal with a high-powered rifle when it resurfaces.

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 despatched using a rifle. In some cases, the harpoon strike alone is sufficient to kill the animal. In other cases, the narwhal 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, nets are sometimes used to capture narwhal, particularly during the dark season and in very heavy ice. The narwhal swims into the net, becomes entangled and will drown if it cannot surface. If they remain alive, they are shot be the hunter when the net is checked.