The Greenlandic marine ecosystem is an Arctic one. The waters of the East Greenland shelf are dominated by the cold East Greenland Current. These cold waters may be somewhat ameliorated by the western branch of the Irminger Current, and off South and West Greenland the influence of Atlantic waters of the Irminger Current may be found as a subsurface layer that reaches quite far north and influences the temperature in the upper layers through diffusion.
Although cod has been fished intermittently in West Greenland waters for centuries, the success of this fishery has been variable. In spite of patchy data from the 17th and 18th centuries, there is little doubt that cod abundance at West Greenland fluctuated a great deal. Information from the 19th century suggests that cod were fairly plentiful in Greenlandic waters until about 1850. After that there seem to have been extremely few cod off southwest Greenland until in the 1910s, when a small increase in the occurrence of cod in inshore areas was noted.
Cod were also registered in offshore regions off West Greenland in the 1920s, where fisheries by foreign vessels expanded quickly and catches increased from about 5000 t in 1926 to 100,000 t in 1930. From then until the end of World War II, this fishery yielded annual catches between about 60,000 and 115,000 t. By 1950, the total catch had reached almost 200,000 t and then fluctuated around 300,000 t during 1952—1961. The increase of the cod catch continued and landings varied between about 380 and 480,000 t during 1962—1968. However, by 1970, the catch had decreased to 140,000 t and was, with large variations, within a range of 10,000—150,000 t until the early 1990s. Since 1993, practically no Atlantic cod has been caught in Greenlandic waters. Before the introduction of a 200-mile EEZ around Greenland in 1978, the cod fishery was mostly conducted by foreign fleets, but the Greenlandic fleet has since dominated the fishery.
A fishery for Greenland halibut began in a modest way around 1915 and by 1970 had only reached about 4000 t, most of which was taken by Greenland. From 1970 to 1980, other countries participated in the Greenland halibut fishery, which peaked in 1976 at about 26,000 t. By 1980, the catch had fallen to about 7000 t. During the 1990s, the catch increased rapidly to about 23,000 t in 1992 and a record high of about 35,000 t in 1999. After 1980, foreign vessels have not played a significant role in the Greenland halibut fishery off West Greenland.
The catch of northern shrimp off West Greenland has increased steadily since 1960. In the beginning, this species was fished only by the Greenland fleet, but from 1972 large vessels from other countries joined this fishery. Between 1976 and the early 1980s, the catch by other countries decreased and has been insignificant since. On the other hand, the Greenlandic catch increased steadily from a total catch of about 1800 t in 1960 to 132,000 t in 2002.
Historically, capelin have been caught at Greenland for domestic use and animal fodder. A small commercial fishery for roe-bearing females began at West Greenland in 1964. There were relatively large fluctuations of the capelin catch from 1964 to 1975, but since then the catch of capelin has been insignificant. This fishery is conducted by Greenlanders.
East Greenland waters have been fished commercially only since after World War II. The main species, which have been fished commercially off East Greenland, are Greenland halibut, northern shrimp, cod, and redfish. With the exception of northern shrimp in the last two decades, the fisheries off East Greenland have almost exclusively been conducted by foreign fleets.
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