Large whales in West Greenland

Minke whales are seldom seen and almost impossible to spot from a plane. This one was observed from a boat in the Disko Bay, 2006 Photo: Malene Simon
The cargo vessel 'Kathleen' was used during the first attempts to count whales in Greenlandic waters. The first attempt was in 1982 using the sailing ship Regina Maris.
Group of fin whales, aerial survey 2005. Fin whales are very easy to spot. Photo: Lars Witting
The figure shows how the stock of humpback whales has been increasing. Click for large picture

Since 1984 there have been 7 visual aerial surveys and 2 photographic counts of large whales in West Greenland.  

Minke whale

For many years, Greenland has been criticised for the lack of valid data on the stock of minke whale harvested in Greenland. In 2009 the quota was 200 animals.

This criticism kick-started the first aerial surveys in 1984, which replaced the ship surveys conducted without notable success in 1982 and 1983.  In spite of this extensive effort it was not until 2007 that an estimate large enough to justify the hunt in Greenland was obtained.  

In the early days of the surveys the total number of minke whales spotted represented insufficient data to feed the models used to estimate stock sizes. Even though minke whales are supposed to be the most common large whale in Greenland, it has been practically impossible to find for the observers in aerial surveys. Many theories about their whereabouts have been suggested, e.g. that they were offshore while observers were flying inshore and vice versa.     

Instead, the point might be that minke whales seldom occur in groups and are distributed over a very large area. It is only possible to spot them in calm weather conditions without fog which means almost never in West Greenland.

In the 2007 count a simpler model requiring fewer observations was used to estimate the stock size. Because of the difficulties in counting minke whales it is not possible to estimate whether the population is increasing or decreasing, but the time series from 1984 to 2007 indicate that the number varies considerably.  

The counting of minke whale has been a prolonged and evolving project during which different types of problems have had to be solved. We have gone through a process of development e.g. from operating with small planes with two observers to using large planes with four observers. This process has been very expensive, but it also resulted in much valuable information which has contributed to improving and focusing the effort on work concerning other species.

Fin whale

Alongside the minke whales, fin whales have been counted. This task has been technically much less difficult than the minke whale count. Fin whales are one of the largest whales and they gather in small groups, which are much easier to detect than the minke whales.

It has not been possible to correct stock numbers on the fin whale for diving animals. This has not been pursued further since the non-corrected numbers are large enough to defend the existing desire for a a quota of 19 rorquals.

The stock size of fin whale from censuses in1987/88 was 1100 whales. Comparison of the new values of 3138 counted animals in 2005 and 4359 animals in 2007 leaves no doubt that the stock is in growth in West Greenland.


Humpback Whale

Humpback whale is the only species on which we have valid data in the entire counting period. The figures show an annual growth of 9%, when the numbers of observations per kilometers flown are compared for the entire period of 1984 to 2007.

Growth is in the same order of magnitude as seen in other areas of the North Atlantic Ocean, which is also to be expected given that since the protection of the population in Western Greenland in 1985 only few humpback whales were caught in their wintering grounds in the Caribbean. New figures from 2007 are also fully adjusted for diving animals and show a population of approximately 3000 animals, a stock size large enough for an annual catch of 10 animals.  

Figures for whales on the east coast are missing

For all three baleen whales: minke whale, humpback whale and fin whale we lack figures for live stock along the coast of East Greenland. Initial exploration along the coast from Tasiilaq to the South shows that there are large quantities of whales in this area. Farther north along the ice edge from Scoresby Sund to Svalbard a number of large whales has also been reported.

Updated 06.06.2019