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Length : 25mn
Now I can fish by boat for more than six months of the year. 15 years ago, it was four months at most "
Niels Molgaard, fisherman from Qeqertaq
Niels casts off in his boat. The fishing nets, hooks and lines, the crates that can hold 20 kilos of fish and a full tank of fuel from the depot a few hundred metres from the village. The final step, securely attaching the two Pocas that will follow in the 7-metre wake. The Poca is the boat most often used by Greenland coastal fishermen. A solid boat, streamlined and reinforced to deal with the Arctic ice, and equipped with 110 to 120 HP engines.
His daughters, Arnatsiaq and Maali, follow in the third Poca. The mist has settled on the tips of the icebergs since the sun is hidingDuring this period, from mid-June to mid-September, it never sets. It’s around midnight and we’re leaving for long hours of fishing. It’s the high season for fishermen, who make trips back and forth between the sea, the factory and then home for a few hours’ rest. Everyone at their own pace, in their own time. Don’t expect any agenda, any apparent fuss.
Niels has always hunted and fished. Here, in Qeqertaq where his father taught him everything about the Arctic nature. Apart in 2008-2009, when he decided to try his luck on the opposite side of the bay, on the island of Disko, when the cod had abandoned the waters on this side. The trial period was not successful enough for him to stay. Our language will be built on shared moments and complicity, and achieved through respect and interaction. We don’t share a common spoken language, apart from the desire for a shared experience The kind that is achieved through respect and interaction. We don’t share a common language, apart from that of the desire for shared experience. His wife, Hannie, a teacher at the village school, and his younger daughter, Maali, will be our interpreters.
Qeqertaq. A fishing village located to the North of Disko Bay, on Greenland’s West coast. Accessible once a week – every Thursday - when the sea is free of ice, thanks to the boat which provides the service from Ilulissat. In winter, the trip is by helicopter. 115 residents. 35 houses. 8 are abandoned. The protracted howling of the dogs in the evening conveys their impatience for their sole meal of the day. Throughout summer they are tied up a few minutes away from the village or are left to roam free on a small nearby island, awaiting the winter’s activity. Only this year’s puppies wander about the village, not leaving the side of the kids who go from the port to the playground, from the communal house to Pilersuisoq – a small supermarket supplied by container ships – to buy the same things that most children anywhere in the world want. Then back to the the port to drop a fishing line in the water and imitate their dads.
No road. Paths and wooden stairs connecting the houses, bordered by water pipes and electric cable ducts, insulated to withstand the biting cold of winter. The look of left overs from a yard sale, with the carcasses of household appliances and snowmobiles that can’t be recycled – a real problem, and one that is hard to solve for all the villages. A primary school which at the start of the new school term will take 18 children, the church, the undoubtedly indispensable Pilersuisoq store and the fish factory, which bears the logo of the state-owned Royal Greenland Company. The factory does not process the fish directly. The fishermen bring in their catch of the day, and they are cleaned, gutted and packed, then frozen in cold storage rooms at -25°C. With or without the head, which may be sold separately, depending on the intended market – Asian, American or European. These are Royal Greenland’s instructions.
“Fishing is in the DNA of the Inuit. Particularly since we can no longer really hunt, it’s by fishing that we make our living. By boat in summer, by dropping fishing lines with hooks through holes cut in the ice in winter", Niels explains. And the factory is the lifeline. “In all of the coastal villages, with the exception of some civil service posts or the staff of Royal Greenland, the men are fishermen. The women help them and many work at the factory. If it’s not the wife, it’s the daughter or son.” A logical sequence - but also a dangerous pattern of dependency.
Niels and Arnatsiaq secure fishing nets to prevent them from being washed away by icebergs that drift. They also push the icebergs with boats from te nets zone
Climate change in the Arctic is among the fastest and most severe in the world. It is estimated that in the next 100 years these changes will accelerate, contributing to major physical, ecological, sociological and economic changes. Melting ice will have a major impact on the entire planet.
“The part that you see here, 20 years ago it was ice from the beginning of December to the end of May. The sea was frozen in the fjord and as far as Disko Bay. You got about with dogs and sleds. Now, it’s only frozen between January and April. And only on the fjord side, not near Disko (close to the open sea). The first time we saw that was in 1994”, Niels recalls, focusing on his course and the radar echo. “Apart from during the hard core of winter, the ice has become too thin”, limiting trips by boat, dogsled or snowmobile. “Sometimes it’s long, and boring”, Hannie confides. “We’re connected to everything by satellite TV, internet and the mobile phone network, but it’s not the same thing. The Inuit always used to go out on the ice with the dogs in winter, and went to visit friends and family. Now, we hesitate to do that. We also have more snow than before. Our dogsleds are not adapted to this. We would need wider runners.” Niels and Hannie had around 30 dogs 15 years ago, before giving up on them. The snowmobile is cheaper in the end. No risk of illness. Less work.
Niels retrieves his nets, cast two days ago. The three Pocas work in a triangular formation. Each brings a corner of the net back to the 7-meter main deck. A trap that slowly closes on the shoals of cod. A very good catch. Around 10 hours of work to gut more than a tonne of fish and fill the tanks that will be unloaded at Qeqertaq factory. Niels is smiling. It’s the best day of the summer – but it doesn’t make up for the start of the season and the disappearance of the halibut inside the zone. End of the work. It’s about 3 am. We’ll be going out again the next day to move away the icebergs that are drifting and risk dragging his nets. Potentially a large financial loss for Niels and an environmental threat to the seabed. It’s become commonplace: the warming climate is releasing increasing numbers of icebergs, which calve off from glaciers and end up obstructing the fjords.
At Uummannaq, 7 hours by boat to the north, the break-up of the ice didn’t happen until June this year . That had not been the case since 2004. 2004. A reason to cast doubt on “global warming”. The image of the Inuit hunter stranded on a drifting slab of pack ice, forced to leave his village because he can’t hunt or fish any longer due to climate change, doesn’t amuse anyone here. It causes irritation. “If increasing numbers of Greenlanders are leaving their village, it’s first and foremost because of the lack of services. The law on the merging of municipal districts which followed the 2009 referendum scrapped many of the local services.” Budget savings…
Since 1951, this Western part of the coast of Greenland has seen a 5°C increase in temperature in winter, 3°C in spring and autumn, and between 0°C and 1°C in summer. The variations differ from one area to another, depending on the winds and the sea currents. It is also difficult to measure the progression in temperatures beyond the coastal zones, because the ice sheet – which makes up 80% of the island – is still virtually inaccessible and it takes colossal scientific resources. The south of the island, for example, is almost completely ice-free throughout the year, enabling farming to be developed. In the Pilersuisoq stores you might be surprised to find potatoes “Grown in Greenland”. Or strawberries that are not imported.
This can make you smile. But let’s be clear: “The Greenlanders and the government see that the ice melt offers real opportunities to them and to the country”, notes Paaluk. He started up a luxury tourism company, focusing on sports tourism for thrill-seekers and nature lovers with a capital “N”, in the vicinity of the island of Uummannaq. “Greenlanders are perfectly familiar with Arctic nature. They have lived with it for centuries. They respect it. Today they all see that their environment – the fauna and flora – is changing. They don’t deny that change is taking place. But the great majority view it as a cycle of the planet such as their ancestors experienced previously. Warming or no warming, they believe they will adapt, as they always have done. For the time being, they’re seizing the opportunity that’s being presented to them. The Inuit are pragmatic. That’s how they’ve always survived.”
As much a dilemma as a paradox.
The rare earths
becomes a major geopolitical issue since growing demand has come up against China's export restrictions. In a sector where the Asian power controlled in 2012 more than 97% of the world production, the United States, Europe and Asia-Pacific are now turning to one of the major emerging eldorados in the rare earths sector: Greenland.
The enthusiasm of the great powers – and in their wake, large companies – for the region has increased tenfold since the effects of climate change are no longer mere theory. Even if this interest is not entirely new. The island was a strategic observation post during the Cold War, making it possible to monitor the maritime military and supply routes, and the trajectories of long-range missiles. In recent publications, we thus learnt that the United States had offered to buy the island from Denmark in 1946, for 100 million dollars.
Copenhagen refused, and must be pleased about that today.
Greenland had been a Danish colony since the 16th century, before becoming an autonomous region following the referendums of 1979 and then 2009. Even though some political parties are riding a populist wave, a majority of Greenlanders seemed to want to maintain a privileged relationship with Denmark and not head too rapidly towards full independence. Greenlanders are generally aware that half of the national budget today still comes from Denmark’s annual contribution of 500 million euros (the equivalent of 1% of the Danish national budget). Without this contribution, the health and education services, for example, would no longer function. Simple philanthropy? Undoubtedly not, but rather a long-term political and economic strategy. For Denmark, Greenland represents a major strategic interest. Its territory in fact gives it a seat on the Arctic Council and influence at the international level on questions of the exploitation of fishing, mineral, oil and gas resources, and new shipping routes, which could prove very profitable, as well as questions of military defence arising between Russia and the United States – with who Denmark makes common cause – in the region.
In the course of 20 years, the Arctic has become an object of speculation. The retreat of the ice sheet and the ice melt give access to highly-coveted resources, and the Greenland authorities fully intend to benefit from this.
First and foremost, the shipping routes. The ice melt is opening up shipping routes – notably the Northwest Passage – which would cut the journey between Asia and Europe by 40% and make it possible to avoid the bottlenecks of Suez and Panama. These routes are currently navigable for only two or three months of the year, but this could double over the next 30 years, bringing in a lot of money, but also involving undeniable risks of pollution.
Then there are the hydrocarbon deposits and minerals. The Arctic is believed to hold a quarter of the world’s (as yet undiscovered) oil and gas resources – more than a third of which are thought to be located in Greenland. The same figures apply to uranium and the rare-earth minerals that are so sought-after for precision electronic equipment and renewable forms of energy, such as the manufacture of solar panels and electric car batteries. China currently has a virtual trade monopoly over them. “Certainly a good opportunity to create jobs”, says Paluuk, who at the beginning of the summer accompanied the engineers to the old “Black Angel” coal mine, near Uummannaq. The site had closed in the early ‘90s, leaving a gaping hole for the local labour force, who had no opportunities for retraining. Chinese companies might once again be interested in it. The Greenland authorities – with the backing of the Danish administrative power – have already granted 5 operating permits to big mining companies, mainly American and Australian ones, after lifting the ban on the mining of radioactive minerals in 2013. This was a major policy shift on the part of Copenhagen and Nuuk, which for 30 years had taken a zero-tolerance approach to the nuclear issue.
Ultimately, the success of adaptation will depend upon the extent to which culturally important subsistence activities of predominantly small communities are valued within the political discourse of nation building in Greenland."
Dpt of Geography, McGill University, Montreal. Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in resource dependent communities: a case study from West Greenland
" Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in resource dependent communities: a case study from West Greenland "
Dpt of Geography - McGill University - Montreal
Hunters and fishers with small boats, who are typically self-employed, are particularly sensitive to changing climatic conditions. While they seem highly adaptable to a changing climate, the centralizing tendencies associated with Home Rule have reduced flexibility and diversity in resource use that has traditionally underpinned adaptation, contributed towards the emergence of conflict over resource use as local customs have been overruled, and resulted in limited attention to small subsistence orientated communities in climate change policy discourse.
Indeed, the future of small settlements has long been debated in Greenland, with policy encouraging depopulation of smaller settlements and investments largely channeled to major centres with their economic functions. Those engaged in hunting livelihoods are limited in their ability to earn income due to harvesting regulations, and typically lack the formal training and language skills necessary for waged employment.
Many adaptations are costly and exceed the financial capability of individuals and households, both in terms of new harvesting equipment required and the economic costs for occupational hunters of not being able to access fish or animals.
For such individuals, having a partner who earns a wage is important in assisting household adaptation. Ultimately, the success of adaptation will depend upon the extent to which culturally important subsistence activities of predominantly small communities are valued within the political discourse of nation building in Greenland.
It is incomprehensible and highly worrying that the Minister of Fisheries denies overfishing of Greenland halibut, and is unwilling to lower the quota or do away with quota-free areas"
Kaare Winther Hansen, biologist and WWF project coordinator in Greenland
Biologists have sounded the alarm in recent years over the declining halibut catch in Disko Bay, which is a biologically rich. Scientific stock assessments show that the population of Greenland halibut has declined in the past 10 to 15 years and that the average fish is 4 inches shorter than it was a decade ago.
Greenland's largest fishing organization and the fishing industry are now voicing their concern. Stakeholders in the Greenland halibut fishery met in early April to work together to protect threatened inshore fish stocks in Disko Bay. Fishermen and other representatives of the seafood industry, scientists, and government officials signed a memorandum of understanding that outlines plans for ensuring a sustainable fishery for communities on the country’s west coast.
However, the Minister responsible for fisheries refuses to lower the allowable catch until now. It is incomprehensible and highly worrying that the Minister of Fisheries denies overfishing of Greenland halibut, and is unwilling to lower the quota or do away with quota-free areas. To continue taking that risk when we've already lost so much is irresponsible.
Copyrights HCCS / Samuel Turpin
The fishing trips can last 10 to 15 hours in summer, during which the sun does not go down. It's high season for all fishermen who fear equipment breaks
“I like coming back here. Life is peaceful. I spend time with my family. I like to fish and hunt with my father. But it’s true that there’s nothing here. I get bored quickly. I look forward to meeting up with my friends again, and not just on Facebook."
Maali, 17 years old, Niels and Hanne's daughter
Maali is 17. In less than a week she will leave again for Aasiat to take a new university course. She has spent the three months of summer in Qeqertaq, returning from two years of studies in Denmark. Copenhagen provides grants to the young generation to come and learn Danish and English and follow courses in potentially high-growth areas. From the time they are secondary school age, at around 13-14, young people have to leave for boarding school in the big neighbouring towns if they want to continue with their studies. The distance weighs heavily on them in spite of regular visits.
Her older sister, Arnatsiaq, 23, is to leave Greenland for the first time and follow in her sister’s footsteps. “To learn to manage a company and get a better position in a fish factory. In Qeqertaq or elsewhere. I like living here. But…” But neither of them can imagine getting married in Qeqertaq. “To a fisherman – it would be difficult.” Greenland is undergoing a less visible transformation. That of the family unit. Without any real prospects in the villages, the girls are more enthusiastic about continuing with their studies. At the risk of not returning, due to the lack of opportunities. A gap is slowly growing, stretching the flexibility of roles within couples. Women’s role in the household income is growing, allowing the sources of income to be diversified. A valuable contribution that is welcomed as much as it may cause discomfort. Caught between Inuit traditions, the reference points of colonial Denmark, and American culture, via online streaming, the Greenland’s youth are hardly joking when they describe themselves as being “in an ice palace”, in which they are trying to find their way in a hall of mirrors.
Seal hunt. It is now practiced essentially as a leisure activity
However, today the brakes have been applied to what observers did not hesitate to call the new Eldorado just 5 years ago, and the Greenland government is being forced to review its strategies.
While in recent polls the Greenland population said they were generally in favour of economic development through the exploitation of its natural resources, it is still very wary of the consequences of radioactivity. The pilot project at Kvanefjeld (2nd largest rare-earth deposit in the world) is not really very reassuring, despite the PR campaign by the Greenland Minerals and Energy Company, while the acquisition by the Chinese company, Shenge, of 12.5% of the shares in early 2017 just added fuel to the flames. The Greenlanders now fear the mass arrival of Chinese labour.
More unsettling still, three big oil companies – GDF Suez (France), Statoil (Norway) and DONG (Denmark) – decided in early 2015 to give up their exploration permits despite the Greenland government’s tempting offer to extend them for free. The companies announced disappointing results for their explorations and are hesitating to make new, very substantial off-shore investments. This comes at a time when world crude reserves are at a peak and demand is gradually falling, pushing to companies to opt instead for investments in new forms of energy, guided by a public that is increasingly sensitive about such matters. Paradox or irony: climate change would certainly facilitate oil exploitation, but would also create more and more gigantic icebergs separating off from the glaciers, which pose a threat to the oil platforms. Following the Exxon-Valdez accident in 1989 and more recently the series of incidents in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas in Alaska, oil companies are subject to security standards pertaining to the storage and transport of crude oil that they find difficult to live up to.
Greenland is thus seen to be at a crossroads: the potential for economic – and over the long-term political – independence from Denmark, due to the exploitation of natural resources that have become accessible as a result of global warming, set against the environmental risks this entails. Not to mention the mixed message this could convey in terms of its image as a “victim” of climate change, maintained and promoted to the public. In the end, the independence that Greenland would gain from Copenhagen could also make it dependent on the great powers jostling for position in the geopolitics of the North Pole and the big multinationals eyeing up its resources. How could this young State, still in the process of being constructed, resist this?
In this context, the authorities are relying on their jokers in the pack: first of all, the country’s tourism potential, by playing the great-wilderness-and-Nordic-activities card. Ilulissat is preparing. The hotels and guesthouses got to work and the tourist agencies are advertising their tour and packages. New training courses are being offered to Greenlanders and colossal projects for the extension of the airport and the tourist office are causing controversy. In Uummannaq, the jewel of Disko Bay, a committee is also trying to come up with reasonable tourism development that benefits local people first and foremost. Since the cancellation of the boat service to the hub of Ilulissat, this small town of 1,500 residents, perched on an island, has been suffering the loss, forcing visitors to take planes and helicopters. The hotel, which turned the island into a stop-over town, closed in 2004. Paaluk could well imagine “reopening the business”.
But above all, Nuuk is relying on the fishing sector.
In overall, fisheries resources could increase in the Arctic zone. Fish stocks would flee the warming of ocean surface waters to go to colder areas in the Barents or Bering seas. This increase would benefit primarily commercial fisheries and not subsistence fisheries.
The fishing sector alone accounts for 90% of Greenland’s exports, and 25% of GDP. A colossus, based mainly on prawns and shrimp, halibut, cod and crab more locally, and lumpfish roe caviar once a year. 88% of production is intended for export, mainly to the United States, Asia, Russia and Europe. 300 medium-sized trawlers and 25 large trawlers – sailing under the Norwegian, Chinese and Greenland flags – are authorised to fish in deeper waters. 3,500 jobs involved. 12% of the working population. But above all the sector is the main subsistence activity for all of the villages of the west coast. 5,000 small private boats are registered for coastal fishing, which represents 15% of total production.
Without viewing it just as political grandstanding and electioneering, successive governments have taken care to protect the “small fishermen”. A subtle act of balancing pure economic need and the Inuit’s attachment to nature and traditions. The state-owned - and historic – company, Royal Greenland, shares the fishing market with the private companies, including Polar Seafood. The companies have set up small factories and warehouses in every village, enabling the fish to be packaged and preserved until the return of the cargo boat that will load the containers.
“During the past few years, as I said, we have been fishing later and later in the season. But with the summer-to-winter transition, when the ice forms, the cargo boat can no longer come here. The warehouse rapidly fills up and we don’t know where to put our catch any more,” Niels notes. In certain villages, near Uummannaq, the fishermen say that in winter they carry up to a tonne on their sleds, to clear some space in their storage areas by taking it to the big warehouses in town. At the risk of seeing the ice, which has become too thin, give way under the weight. Royal Greenland and Polar Seafood have announced an expansion of facilities or building of new factories in many locations. An indication that the sector is doing well from the companies’ point of view, and that they see good prospects for it. With the blessing of the authorities.
« Last year was an exceptional year for halibut. We fished all through the season,” says Niels. And longer still. The authorities lifted the quotas, which had been met as early as August, permitting fishing, unrestricted, until the beginning of the freeze. Royal Greenland posted a record turnover of 7.1 billion DKK (Danish Kroner, or 954 million euros) for 2016. Niels adds, “But this year, at least up till now, it’s been disastrous. There’s no fish. We’re just seeing a few cod coming back” - after being fished intensively for several periods during the last three centuries.
At the factory in Qeqertaq, Arnatsiaq has only worked for three half days per week since the start of the season. The fish tubs are empty. Niels grimaces. Royal Greenland buys cod at just 6DKK (0.8 euros) per kilo. A third the price of halibut. This represents an enormous shortfall for the fishermen, who have to deal with ever higher costs. “It’s true that we can now fish by boat for more than half of the year. But we also have to go further and further, because the fish are changing their routes. This forces us to buy bigger boats with more powerful engines – and so to go into debt.”
Niels Morch, a boat mechanic in Uummannaq confirms this: “Five years ago, the engines were no more than 100ch. Today, it’s double that. Many people have bought new, bigger Pocas, to go further and bring back a higher tonnage”. Royal Greenland and the government are even offering loans at special rates so that fishermen can update their equipment.
The intention is clear. In this situation of uncertainty, the fishing sector is a priority today. A safe investment. At the risk of encouraging an intensive form of fishing – as occurred with cod.
Niels and the other fishermen are unanimous: “The fish that we take today are much smaller than 10 or 15 years ago. We fish them before they’ve reached their full size. They’re young fish.” The impact of climate change on the fishing resources is not yet fully known. The effects of warming and the acidity of the oceans are believed to push new species from the North Atlantic towards Arctic zones, notably mackerel, and are thought to modify the breeding period. We don’t yet know how the species might interact. Studies show that in Disko Bay the ocean has become 2°C warmer since 1997. The accelerated melting of the glaciers releases a considerable quantity of fresh water, which also modifies the warm water-cold water areas of transition. One of the key factors is evidently the cycle of the food chain and the food these species are searching for, such as plankton and capelin. Studies also reveal pollution by heavy metals that are entering the food chain. It’s impossible to establish any certainties. While the authorities are clearly relying on development of the sector and abundant fishing resources in Arctic waters, the future is still uncertain from a scientific point of view as research continues to assess the different species’ capacity for resilience.
The question is thus: What would happen to the coastal fishermen if the fish ran out? Most of them would probably not be able to cope with two or three bad years.
The Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, which is working with the Greenland government on setting quotas and defining fishing zones has been observing a gradual decline in halibut since 2010. In late August (2017), it reminded the ministry of the recommendations, set at 6,400 tonnes.
The ministry has not yet taken any measures.
Texts and photographs : Samuel Turpin
Translation : Karena Keeley