The narwhal is a medium sized Arctic whale with a unique, spiraled ivory tusk that can measure up to two meters long. It is hunted for its meat and blubber by Inuit hunters in West Greenland and Eastern Canada, but its tusks, which, like elephant ivory, can be intricately carved, are commercially valuable and exported in significant numbers, mainly to Switzerland and Japan.
Neither Canada nor Greenland (an independent territory of Denmark) sets hunting quotas. Catches are under-reported; population estimates are 24 years out of date, and, in some areas, up to 30% of the animals shot are lost before they are killed. Hunting mortality is estimated to exceed 1,000 animals annually and may even reach 1,500.
Hunters have depleted the beluga (white whale) in West Greenland to less than 25% of its population in the 1950s. The only reason that we cannot say with certainty that the narwhal population has declined similarly is because no comprehensive surveys have been conducted on this species since 1979. In addition to hunting pressures, the narwhal and beluga are threatened by numerous other human activities, including oil and gas development and pollution.
Several management bodies, including the International Whaling Commission (IWC), have expressed concern that narwhal hunting may not be sustainable. Even the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), a controversial regional management body established by whaling nations in defiance of the IWC, has warned of the risk of over-harvesting narwhals and the need for reliable population estimates.
In 1995, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) undertook a review of the narwhal's status and the impacts of international trade on them. Not surprisingly, the reviewers concluded that "there are insufficient data to determine whether narwhal populations have declined and to assess reliably whether current exploitation is sustainable." CITES recommended that the Greenland and Canadian authorities undertake surveys. However, eight years later, a comprehensive survey has not been undertaken and both countries continue to rely on 1979 data to defend their hunts and their exports of narwhal tusks.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has launched a campaign to save this unique species. WDCS presented its concerns to the 19th meeting of the CITES Animals Committee in August 2003 and requested that the species be formally included on the agenda of the next meeting. AWI will work with WDCS to ensure that the narwhal is treated as a species of priority concern and that urgent action is taken to address the threats they face.
Greenland in Hot Water
Greenland's narwhal hunt is just one aspect of an appalling conservation record. WDCS' new, in-depth examination of Greenland's aboriginal whaling of minke and fin whales under subsistence quotas granted by the IWC revealed a catalogue of problems including: illegal hunting of humpback whales and targeting of killer whales; killing of almost exclusively female whales in East Greenland; use of inadequate weapons and long killing times (one whale took five hours to die in 2002); commercialization of whale meat intended to meet local subsistence needs; plans to commence international trade in whale meat; and smuggling of sperm whale teeth. The IWC must address these issues and press for serious reform of Greenland's aboriginal subsistence whaling at the next IWC meeting in July 2004.