More than 75 percent of Greenland, the world’s largest island, is covered by ice. Its people are coastal, with strong cultural and economic ties to the ocean and sea ice that sustain them. Fishing for Greenland halibut, shrimp, and crab is the primary industry for the country’s predominantly Inuit population of 56,000. The government has also begun to explore mining on land and the potential for oil and gas development in offshore waters. Protecting the ocean’s resources is essential to Greenlanders’ future.
Greenland was first settled about 4,500 years ago by the Saqqaq peoples, who traveled there from what is now Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada by crossing the North Water polynya. Since then, successive Inuit groups have lived in Greenland. Norse settlers arrived about 1,000 years ago and lived in settlements along the southwestern coast until the 15th century.
Connections between Greenland and Nunavut
- Historical: In 1859, an Inuit group from Baffin Island—led by an angakkuq, or shaman, named Qitdlarssuaq—migrated by dog sled north to Ellesmere Island and across Smith Sound to northwestern Greenland. Qitdlarssuaq had heard from a British naval captain about Inuit living in that region. The shaman led about 50 men, women, and children on the treacherous journey across hummocks, mountains, and glaciers, and frozen and open ocean. They finally arrived at the Inuit settlement of Pitorarvik, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the now-abandoned settlement of Etah, Greenland. The two Inuit groups exchanged customs, technologies, and skills for survival. Qitdlarssuaq became famous in northern Greenland for reintroducing kayaks, umiaqs (walrus-skinned boats), several hunting tools, and architecturally improved iglus (igloos). In 1987, the journey of Qitdlarssuaq’s people by dog sled from Baffin Island to Greenland was retraced by a team based in Igloolik, Nunavut, including descendants of Qitdlarssuaq’s original group of migrants. They completed the trip in three months.
- Geographic: Greenland and Nunavut are also connected by the shared northern sea, Baffin Bay, and Davis Strait, an area of water spanning 1.1 million square kilometres (425,000 square miles), more than twice the size of the Baltic Sea. These waters are critical habitat for globally important populations of bowhead whales, narwhal, fish, seabirds, and cold-water corals that rely on the different currents, depths, and temperatures of the region.
- Maritime: Greenland and Canada cooperate on many maritime issues. One example is the Joint Commission on Conservation and Management of Narwhal and Beluga and its scientific working groups. Canada and Greenland also share several offshore fisheries, including an important Greenland halibut fishery. Also, the 1983 Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of the Kingdom of Denmark for Cooperation Relating to the Marine Environment outlines commitments to protect the shared marine environment. It includes a Joint Contingency Plan concerning Pollution Incidents Resulting from Offshore Hydrocarbon Exploration or Exploitation.
Greenland’s fishery accounts for about 85 percent of the country’s exports and employs nearly 25 percent of the labour market. Shrimp represents about half the export value, followed by Greenland halibut at about 35 percent, while crab makes up the remainder. The crab catch has declined dramatically in recent years due to overfishing, dropping from 14,247 tonnes around 2001 to 2,169 tonnes in 2008. Although it comprises a smaller share of the exports than shrimp, the Greenland halibut fishery is important domestically. Shrimp are predominantly fished in southwestern Greenland by a small fleet of industrial trawlers. But Greenland halibut have a broader distribution, ranging from the island’s most southern waters all the way into northern fjords within Baffin Bay. Halibut are fished by large factory trawlers; a mid-size inshore fleet, with small open boats; and even with snowmobiles and dog sleds on sea ice.
In recent years, Naalakkersuisut, the Greenland government, has adopted various policies and programs to promote offshore oil exploration. This goal has been largely driven by Greenlanders’ desire to achieve economic independence.
Pew works closely with Inuit Circumpolar Council-Greenland, or ICC-Greenland, a group that advocates for increased public consultation on both terrestrial and offshore industrial development. ICC-Greenland has spoken out on the need for a stronger consultation framework for environmental and social impact assessments, consistent with Denmark and Greenland’s international obligations. Those include the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Arctic Council’s offshore oil and gas guidelines. ICC-Greenland also works to remind industry and the public of the importance of renewable natural resources, which provide crucial social, economic, and cultural benefits.
Pew's works in Greenland to promote transparent processes and public dialogue about important national decisions regarding natural resource conservation and development. The goal is to create an open dialog in which major industrial projects can be evaluated by citizens so that they have good information about the risks and potential benefits of these projects before they are allowed to proceed. Increased openness and scrutiny during industrial planning will result in science- and community-based decision-making; avoid catastrophic environmental events that could jeopardize the country’s ecology, culture, and economy; and maintain the natural wealth of Greenland’s seas.
Act on Greenland Self-Government, No. 473, 12 June 2009.
United Nations General Assembly, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, resolution adopted by the General Assembly, 2 October 2007, A/RES/61/295
Inuit Circumpolar Council, submitted statements to public consultations in Greenland