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The Blue Economy in Arctic communities

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This article originally appeared in The Circle 04.16. Read all Circle issues here.

From childhood Greenlanders are taught that if they don’t take care of the waters, the fish and mammals living in them, Arnaqquassaaq – the Mother of the Sea – will wreak her vengeance by withholding her precious, life-giving resources. The legend says Arnaqquassaaq’s hair will become dirty and tangled, trapping the sea animals to prevent hunters from catching any food. Jakob Strøm says the legend continues to underscore how the sea and its bounty remains essential to Greenland’s economy.

"Mother of the Sea" sculpture, Nuuk, Greenland. Photo: Peter Løvstrøm / CC BY 2“Mother of the Sea” sculpture, Nuuk, Greenland. Photo: Peter Løvstrøm / CC BY 2

NO MATTER where you go in Greenland, one sight prevails – the fisher or hunter, dressed in his “uniform” of blue coveralls and rubber boots setting out to sea each morning. In the afternoon, he returns with the day’s harvest and sells it at “Brættet” – the local market for fresh catch – or he delivers it to the fish factory where quite likely his wife, mother, brother or another close relative earns their daily living. You will see huge trawlers unloading boxes of cooked shrimp into containers, then heading for Japan, the UK or other seafood-hungry destinations thousands of miles away.

Attempting to describe the ocean’s importance to Greenland is like trying to assess the importance of water to the human body. It cannot be overstated. The ocean is our source of food and income; it is our most important infrastructure and where we spend a great deal of our leisure time. It is our life. Imagine a future where 85 percent of your country’s export disappeared and the remaining 15 percent couldn’t get out of the country. Or a future where scarcely any goods come in from the outside world while those that do are too expensive for the general population. Imagine a future where the livelihood for the most – and the favorite pastime for even more – is obliterated. That would be Greenland’s future without the ocean.

Fourteen per cent of this country’s active labor force works in the hunting or fishing industry. Exports from these industries account for more than 25% of the economy.

The same hunter described earlier, along with his family, might visit relatives in nearby settlements on the weekends. Or he might sail into the fjord to hunt caribou or birds near the shores. The civil servant who regulates the quotas on fish and the doctor who treats him at the hospital are also likely to be out on the water.

There is no official figure, but many families supplement their incomes by bartering the results of hunting and fishing either out of necessity or as a hobby. In one way or another, we all depend on the sea.

But the ocean itself is in transition. Some changes are due to investments in new and bigger vessels and in infrastructure – ports – to better benefit plying the ocean. And substantial changes in the seagoing transportation of goods will take place over the next decade. For well over 200 years goods to and from Greenland have gone through Denmark. With a new port in Nuuk that will change, and the Greenlandic infrastructure will open to direct import and export on major international shipping lanes. These new ports will be accompanied by new opportunities in tourism, mining and Arctic shipping due to declining sea ice. The route through the North-West Passage goes right by Greenland.

Anything that alters the seas alters our lives and climate change is definitely a major game changer. In the far north, sea ice is a highway for hunters and fishers plying their trade via dogsled. As sea ice diminishes, they will have to adjust, possibly investing in a dinghy and engine. Meanwhile, skills honed throughout a lifetime are no longer useful in this new scenario. What was already a challenging life becomes even harder economically and culturally. But warmer waters also bring new possibilities: the cod is back, and the outlook for the pelagic fishery – those fish that live neither close to the ocean bed nor near the shore – is very positive with the potential to harvest popular fish species that net higher revenues and possibly new jobs.

The future of the Arctic Ocean demands a responsible and sustainable approach to reap the benefits of a blue Arctic economy, for Greenland as well as for the rest of the world.

It demands co-dependence: we cannot treat the Arctic Sea as a museum. Nor can we carelessly exploit it. Only one thing is certain: if we take care of “the Mother of the Sea”, she will take care of us.

JAKOB STRØM works in Nuuk, Greenland in growth and sustainability for the municipality.

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