© JG Keulemans

The great auk: when the cost of the blue economy was extinction

30 November 2018


As the Arctic heats up, both literally and in economic terms, it is useful to remember that it is not untouched territory. People have been coming to the Arctic from elsewhere for centuries and have left indelible marks of damage on its natural ecosystems.

Consider the story of the great auk, a flightless bird nearly one metre in height. The great auk was once common to the Atlantic Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, from the top of the British Isles to as far north as the middle of Greenland and the top of Scandinavia.

When serious maritime activity began in the 1500s, the great auk became an easy target. Sailors herded the birds from their rookeries onto ships by the hundreds, like chickens, to be eaten as meat. Industrial hunters used the auk as a source of feathers, fat, oil and down. The auk was extinct by 1844, when fishermen hunted the last breeding pair on their nesting grounds near Iceland.

Today, the threats to the Arctic environment from the expansion of its economy are more systemic. But the lessons of history are clear: unless we act swiftly to limit marine (and other) economic activity in the region, we risk losing precious natural resources, or even entire species, before we have even understood their value.