The Status of walrus in Greenland


By:  Mikv

Greenland Institute of Natural Resources is at present in full swing in updating its knowledge about walrus in preparation for renewing the biological advice regarding these animals in Greenland. This will take place within the NAMMCO framework, and the next advice is expected to be ready in 2014. NAMMCO’s last advice on walrus was in 2010, and since that time the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources has conducted new aerial census of walrus at Qaanaaq and in West Greenland, south of Upernavik. Furthermore, additional studies of walrus diving behavior, migration routes, and the relationship between the Greenlandic and the Canadian walrus populations, have been conducted. Data has been collected with the help of satellite signals received from transmitters that hunters in Qaanaaq have tagged walrus with. The data collected from West Greenland, together with data from East Greenlandic, Canadian, and Norwegian walrus, will be included in NAMMCO’s next assessment, which is expected to be ready by next spring.

Walrus census

Research has shown that there are three different populations of walrus in Greenland—one in northeast Greenland, one in Qaanaaq and the northern part of Baffin Bay, and one in West Greenland between The Davis Straits and the southern part of Baffin Bay. In West Greenland south of Upernavik the population is shared with the southern Baffin Island in Canada, and the number of walrus in Greenland during the winter was estimated at about 1,400 animals in 2012. The number of walrus is believed to have fallen to a third of what it was in the beginning of the 1900’s. At the same time the walrus has left the haul-out areas in West Greenland due to the elevated stress from hunting. The walrus population at Qaanaaq and the Northern Baffin Bay is shared with Canada, and the portion that is found in the North Water Polynia has been estimated at about 1499 in 2010. The population in northeast Greenland has grown rapidly, and in 2008 was about 1500 walrus. It is now believed to be about the same size as it was before the ruthless hunting by foreigners that occurred in the first half of the 1900’s. The same over hunting happened to the populations in West Greenland/Southern Baffin Island and Qaanaaq/Northern Baffin Bay.

Export of walrus products

Products derived from those species listed under CITES can only be exported from Greenland if there is a so-called ”Non Detriment Findings.” These CITES declarations shall determine if the export of a product from a given species has no detrimental effects. ”Non Detriment Findings” can only be given if it can be scientifically documented that harvest is done on a sustainable way. In 2007 there was insufficient documentation to show that the walrus hunt was sustainable, and therefore a positive ”Non Detrimental Finding” was not given.

In 2010 NAMMCO gave advice for sustainable removals that included both landed animals and walrus that were struck but lost. If the combined removals from Greenland and Canada were lower than the advice, there was a 70% probability that the populations would increase to their earlier levels. That was an historic event, as it was the first time that NAMMCO gave a biological consultation about a sustainable harvest of walrus in Greenland.

In 2011 the Government of Greenland (Naalakkersuisut) decided to follow the recommendations from NAMMCO, and that resulted in the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, which is CITES’s scientific authority in Greenland, being able to give a positive Non-Detrimental Finding.

International biological advice

An important part of the work of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources is to obtain the required knowledge about the number of animals in the various populations that are subject to hunting. This information is used together with catch records to calculate sustainable catch quotas. As a general rule, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources presents its results to scientific working groups in those international organizations that Greenland is a member of. With respect to walrus and other marine mammals, international cooperation is necessary because most of these species migrate between Greenland an its neighboring countries. In many cases, the neighboring countries also harvest these animals. The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources advises the Home Rule’s administrative authorities, and the politically responsible who set the quotas. One of the institute’s most important tasks is to provide the best possible advice on the basis of a thorough international and scientific evaluation.


NAMMCO = North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission.
CITES = Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
Population= a group of animals that seldom mates with individuals outside of their own group
Polynia= an area of year round open water, despite being surrounded by sea ice.

By: Fernando Ugarte and Emma Kristensen, Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

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A biopsy dart is used to take a small sample of skin for genetic analyses. Photo: Carsten Egevang, GINR.

A female walrus with pup in Qaanaaq, North Greenland. Photo: Carsten Egevang, GINR.

Movement of walruses between Qaanaaq and Nunavut; data from 8 walruses equipped with satellite senders in 2011. Source: Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, GINR.

The walrus in Greenland are divided in 3 populations. Photo: Carsten Egevang, GINR.

A walrus in East Greenland with a satellite sender on its back. Photo: Fernando Ugarte, GINR.

NAMMCO´s biological advice for walrus. Biological advice from NAMMCO for the sustainable harvest of walrus. The amount that is expected to be removed from the population includes the catches from Greenland and Canada, plus animals struck and lost. The catches in East Greenland have always been lower than the quotas. The estimate of animals struck and lost is based on assumptions.