Research Article: Is sustainable resource utilisation a relevant concept in Avanersuaq? The walrus case

Date Published: March 7, 2018

Publisher: Springer Netherlands

Author(s): Astrid Oberborbeck Andersen, Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen, Janne Flora.


This article addresses the role of Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) in present-day Avanersuaq from anthropological and biological perspectives, and asks whether or not sustainable resource utilisation is a useful concept in northwest Greenland. We describe the relations that unfold around walrus and walrus hunting, in the communities living adjacent to the North Water polynya on the eastern side of Smith Sound. We examine the interplay of walrus population abundance, hunting practices, uses, and formal (governmental) and informal (traditional) ways of regulating the hunt, and we analyse how walruses acquire multiple values as they circulate in different networks. Sustainable resource utilisation, we conclude, is a concept that is relevant in Avanersuaq and beyond, because it works as a biological standard, and hence organises laws, norms, and practices of formal management. Simultaneously, the term is problematic, because it ignores manifold levels of human and societal values connected to walrus.

Partial Text

To people in Avanersuaq (Northwest Greenland, Fig. 1), Atlantic walruses (Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus) and walrus hunting play important roles in everyday livelihoods. Not only are walruses rich in meat and a good source of protein for humans and dogs alike, the tusks have been used in tools or traded as raw materials, jewellery, or other handicraft, and walrus hunting has been integral in the identity and culture of the people for centuries. Through different historical times, the walrus as animal, meat, and other by-products has acquired differing cultural and economic values to humans inhabiting the High Arctic. This paper explores the question of sustainable resource utilisation. We ask in what ways, and to what extent this concept is relevant in Avanersuaq. We answer this question by exploring the role and importance of walrus in present-day Avanersuaq, and how walruses in Smith Sound are assessed, attain value, and are managed by people living outside Avanersuaq. We integrate findings from biological and anthropological research and trace the walrus through various networks that each produces their own values of walrus. We argue that the walrus becomes a complex and contested socio-biological entity that challenges standard definitions of sustainability and regulation. Sustainable resource utilisation, although relevant as a concept, because it affects walrus–human relations, is problematic. The purpose of this article is to show how, using a particular species, the walrus, as an example.Fig. 1Map of Avanersuaq (Thule area), northwest Greenland

The accumulation of biological information on walruses in Smith Sound started with field studies in the 1930s (Vibe 1950) and continues today (Born and Kristensen 1981; Stewart et al. 2014; Heide-Jørgensen et al. 2016, 2017). Ethnographic research was part of many early expeditions to the region (Hastrup et al. 2018a); a tradition that continued by Europeans and Americans who colonized and inhabited the area since 1910 at the Thule Trading Station. Specifically for this paper, ethnographic fieldwork based on participant observation, interviews and informal conversations in the case of the anthropologists was carried out in 2015 and 2016. In spring 2015, the anthropologists (authors A.O.A. and J.F.) joined the biologist (author M.P.H-J.) and five hunters on a walrus tagging expedition, as part of a cross-disciplinary effort with the purpose of learning about each other’s ways of knowing (see Andersen et al. 2015). The biologist was interested in where in Canada walruses migrate after leaving Greenland. This is of relevance for the evaluation of the status of the stock, its exposure to hunting in Canada and Greenland, and phenological changes related to new patterns in ice cover. The anthropologists were interested in human practices and uses of walrus and hunting grounds; how Inughuit make sense of and negotiate the shifts and changes in their surrounding land-, ice-, and seascapes.

It is generally accepted that the introduction of large boats with powerful engines, which most hunters use today, has caused a major change in hunting patterns and effort, both by expanding the operational range of the hunters, but also by allowing larger catches to be brought back much faster than what was possible just 1 decade ago, increasing the risk of population depletion. Likewise, it is widely accepted that these changes in use demand regulation on the harvest of animals (Born et al. 2017). What continues to be debated is how management is carried out most effectively.

The concept that marine resources are exhaustible comes from more than 100 years of biological research, empirical data, and from fish stocks subject to commercial harvest, but also from local observations of bird resources being vulnerable to excessive exploitation (e.g., Faroe Isles). Biologists and politicians have examples of populations that were overexploited and so know that it can happen. It is not, however, a concept that is integral to hunting culture in Northwest Greenland, because there are few historical examples of depleted populations (caribou and muskoxen), and the general experience is that animals cannot disappear, and there are enough animals to take what is needed. Natural resource managers have found that it is difficult to provide information about the scientific background for the quotas and the necessity of having restrictions on the catch levels in a way that the hunters in Greenland can fully understand. Ideas about conservation, sustainability, and resources from nature being exhaustible mainly have their origin in seventeenth century European worldviews, and come from sedentary forms of producing and harvesting resources, such as forestry and fisheries (Arler 2015). The term “resources” originates in an economic view of what humans can take from nature to produce other goods. These ideas are radically different from the traditional Inuit and Inughuit ways of relating to and using land, ice, sea, and game. Ethnographic literature from across the Arctic is rich in descriptions of animals and humans considered sentient beings, because animals and humans alike have consciousness-giving souls (Rasmussen 1929; Fienup-Riordan 2000; Petersen and Lynge 2004). Although sharing a somewhat similar kind of personhood (Mauss 1985 [1938]), humans and animals are positioned differently in the world, as hunter and prey, respectively. The hunter–prey relation is rather general, but changes regionally, and according to the specific animal, its habitat and the way it is hunted. Although these ideas vary around the Arctic, generally speaking, central to Inuit concepts of the human (Nuttall 1994; Flora 2015) and non-human animal soul is the notion of the soul returning to a new body after death as a kind of reincarnation. The continuity of the animal populations is ensured (Fienup-Riordan 2000; Obeyesekere 2002). Guemple (1994) describes how, among Qiqiqtamiut in southeastern Hudson Bay, animals and humans have a limited supply of souls that circulate in a closed circle of birth, death, and rebirth. Guemple characterises the cycle of souls as “a zero-sum game: no new ‘players’ can enter the system, none can permanently depart. They can only be recycled or displaced to some other location” (Guemple 1994, p. 120). In such a worldview, animals are finite and renewable at the same time.7 In these notions of life and relations to the living beings in the landscape, living resources are not immediately understood as exhaustible among present-day Inuit and Inughuit hunters (Rosing 1998). This does not mean that hunting has not been self-regulated before states imposed restrictions and quotas on hunting. There are many examples of how hunting has been organised by ritualised practices and rules, as well as principles of not catching more game than needed (Rosing 1998; Laugrand and Oosten 2015). One principle that has traditionally guided hunting and trapping in the Arctic is that animals offer themselves to the hunter. Catching an animal then becomes a deed of respect towards the animal’s will, and the hunter responding to its request. If not respected, animals could potentially revenge themselves on the hunters by not showing themselves again (Rosing 1998; Laugrand and Oosten 2015, pp. 64–65).

When considering walrus within the three networks: hunter-community, knowledge-biology, and politics-management different actors become visible, some located far beyond the geographical limits of Avanersuaq and Smith Sound. Decisions about walrus are made far away from the animals, and the people who hunt them, however the effects of these decisions can directly or indirectly impact hunters in Avanersuaq.




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