Hunting seals in Greenland – how and for what

A hunter’s experience

Seals – Harp seals, bearded seals, hooded seals and ringed seals: how they are hunted with an explanation of how their meat and skins are utilised and information on climate change.

Seals such as ringed seal, harp seals, bearded seals and hooded seals, and the ways in which we hunt them, play an important role in Greenland. We need them for meat to eat and skins to make clothes from. They will be important to us for all time, because we cannot do without them in the Arctic.

As our country is vast, the way in which seals are hunted varies. In places where there is sea ice, they are hunted on the ice; in places with ice-free waters they are hunted in the water by larger vessels. Some municipalities in Greenland ban the hunting of seals in the summertime, when there is no more ice on the sea and seals lose their fur and get thin, until September, when the seals get their coat back and fatten up again.

When seals are hunted in open water, hunters in dinghies or larger vessels follow the movements of the seal and if they are successful the seal is shot. Seals are hunted on new ice, which has no snow on it, by walking on the ice and listening for the sound of a seal’s breath, and when you hear it, bear skin is tied to the soles of your shoes to muffle their sound as you walk closer to the seal breathing hole. When you reach it, you shoot the seal with a 30.06 and harpoon it so that it will not sink and be lost. In the spring when the seals are out of the water and resting on the ice catching some sun, seals are hunted with blinds – that is a small frame with white fabric stretched across it. A rifle is tied to such a blind and the hunter crawls closer to the seal until he is close enough to take a shot. The seal is shot through the head, killing it instantly. If a seal is struck anywhere else, it will make it off the ice into the water, and will be lost, never to be seen again. For that type of hunting you use 222, 223 and 243 ammunitions. Bearded seals tend to rest on ice floes, broken ice and at the edges of icebergs. Harp seals tend to rest on ice floes. Hooded seals tend to rest on pack ice and on top of smaller icebergs.

In the winter and during the polar night seals are hunted by dogsled with dogs that have experience with hunting and have a good nose for finding a seal breathing hole. Areas with broken ice are searched, as seals tend to use these as breathing holes as well. Nets made for seals are also put to good use during the polar night as an aid for sustenance. Seals are also hunted close to the ice, from floes and from land; when the seal appears it is shot, and if you cannot retrieve the seal with hooks it is retrieved with a kayak or a small boat. And that is how bearded seals, harp seals, ringed seals and hooded seals are hunted.

In Greenland the skins from these hunts are needed for making clothes and for other uses. Seal skins are used for a variety of things; for instance, the fur is removed and set to dry in the cold for use in women’s and girls’ footwear, and when the fur is removed and set to dry in a warm place, it is used for men’s and boys’ footwear. It is also used with the fur on for both women’s and men’s footwear as well as gloves as soon as it is dry. It is also used for outerwear and outer anoraks in the cold, in addition to being used as fabric for kayaks, and air bladders on hunting tools. Seal skin is used for the kayaking anorak and for the tips of whips and to hold fermented little auks.

Skins from harp seals are used as any other seal skin but are especially used for the soles children’s footwear and for the skin of kayaks. Skins from hooded seals are used for many different things just like other skins. Skins from bearded seals are often used for the soles of footwear and as rope (for whips), because they are thicker compared to other skins. Skins from harp seals and other species are also processed to be sold to Great Greenland which freezes and later tans the skin to finalize it as a product.

All of the meat from the seals mentioned is eaten or preserved for future use. Seal carcasses are often covered by stones and stored whole to mature in flavor, and the meat is later eaten boiled, frozen or dried during celebrations and feasts.

Meat from bearded seals and hooded seals are also prepared for winter stock. People in northern areas often dry the meat of bearded seals for winter stock, for cooking and dog feed. People from South Greenland primarily make winter supplies and other delicious foods out of hooded seal. The methods for cutting up the seal and preparing the skin varies from place to place.

In recent years there has not been a lot of snow in Northern Greenland due to climate changes, and as a result baby seals (meqqortut) are visible on bare ice during the birthing season, before when there was more snow, they used to stay hidden under the snow (nunarsak).

Because of climate change, the seals arrive much later into the fjords and there are fewer than there used to be. Greenland as a whole is experiencing more frequent heavy storms which tend to last longer, and that is because of climate change. Traditional weather prediction methods can no longer be used as winds tend to come suddenly without the usual precursors. It used to be that people could predict the weather by knowing what to look for, but this is no longer possible in recent years.

In parts of Greenland where there is sea ice, the ice has gotten thinner for more than half of the season. Specialists have said that a warm current has reached the northern parts of Greenland which has caused the sea ice to become much thinner. Where the sea ice has usually been more than 2 meters thick at a certain time of the year it is now less than 1 meter thick, and finally, the sea ice season starts more than a month later than usual.

Greenland has gotten hotter in the summer and the summer rain in North Greenland has dramatically increased.

Jens Danielsen, Qaanaak, Greenland

Statement, Management Committee for Seals and Walruses, NAMMCO Council 26, March 2018

[Translated from Greenlandic by Aqqaluk Lynge Egede, from the Government of Greenland Translation services]

About the author

Jens Danielsen is the Chair of the Hunting Council in Greenland, which is an advisory body to the Minister of Fisheries and Hunting regarding hunting matters. He is also a member of the board of Association of Fishers and Hunters in Greenland. Jens Danielsen has lived most of his life in the most northern town of Greenland, Qaanaaq. He is a hunter and fisherman with more than 40 years of experience. He is an advocate of the sustainable use of marine mammals.

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