Greenland shark - history, fishery and photos

(Somniosus microcephalus)


The Greenland shark is the second biggest shark in the North Atlantic. Unlike most sharks it stays in polar waters years round. It can be 7 meters long, weighing over a ton. It is most common on depths between 200 and 600 meters. In the Denmark Strait (between Greenland and Iceland) itís claimed that itís been caught sharks with a length of 8 meters. The skin is grey or brown, about 1 cm. thick and feels like sandpaper when you touch it. Itís jaws is covered with about 100 sharp teeth. This shark eats everything - even things that is not classified as food is found in its stomach (like boxes, rubber and brushes). Maybe this is a result of its bad sight? Most Greenland sharks has one parasite in each eye. In spite of this itís proved that this shark can hunt, probably mainly by use of other senses. The hunt gives results, and it may therefore not be as slow a swimmer as previous thought. As for most sharks the Greenland shark reproduces slowly. A couple of hundred years ago scientists and fishermen claimed that all Greenland shark were female and the porbeagle was its mate. Thereby the Norwegian names "hŚkjerring" (meaning: "shark + wife") and "hŚbrann" (shark + a former Norwegian expression for husband).


Fishery in Norway

Fishing for Greenland sharks is probably the oldest known shark fishery in northern Europe. Itís not known when it started, but a report from Troms in Norway in 1650 says:: "During the long nights before Christmas, in the deep fjords, they catch a fish called "HŚkjerring" (Greenland Shark). In the summer, when this fish is caught using fishhook, the fisherman remove the liver and then uses a pipe to blow air into itís stomach."  The fishermen did this to prevent the carcass from sinking. They didnít want other fish to feed on rotten shark flesh. In 1840 two Greenland shark companies were established in Hammerfest (north in Norway). Their vessels hunted from June till September. The record for one vessel was 1780 Greenland sharks in one season. That catch represented 200 bucket of liver. There are many such examples of Greenland shark fisheries in Norway, and they all used fishhooks to catch the sharks. The fish line was provided with an iron chain near the hook in order to prevent the shark from cutting the line with its sharp teeth. Only the liver was taken and the oil produced from the liver was a valuable merchandise. 

In 1908 a specialized fishery for Greenland shark had been established far from the Norwegian fjords and coast. Vessels with steam engines fished in waters east of Greenland. Some vessels combined this fishery with the traditional hunt for seal. The fishery was such a success that some of the vessels specialized on the Greenland shark fishery. Some of the larger vessels with steam engine, had their own factory for producing fish oil on board. In the 1930`s the catches were reduced year by year, and in 1940 only two specialized shark vessels participated in this fishery off the coast of Greenland.

After the Second World War the high price of the fish oil gave new life to the Greenland shark fishery. The vessels operated in a huge area from the coast of Norway, areas near Shetland and The Faro Island, off the coast of Iceland, in the Denmark Strait (between Greenland and Iceland), and in the Barents Sea. Different types of vessels participated, and they all used bottom lines. This fishery reached it peak in 1948. In 1949 there was a dramatic drop in the price for fish oil, naturally followed by a drop in the number of vessels taking part in this fishery. In the following years only a few vessels were fishing Greenland shark along the Norwegian coast, doing this in between other fisheries. The bait used for the bottom lines was often a combination of several types of fish, flesh and blubber. Blubber from seal and whales were common baits, and so was flesh from the Greenland shark (yes, this shark is a cannibal).

In the 1970`s a couple of vessels were hired by the Norwegian Directorate of Fishery. Their mission was to catch as mush Greenland shark as possible in some limited areas. This was done after several reports from fishermen who had experienced that Greenland shark ate the fish hanging on regular long lines. History had shown that it would not take much effort to reduce the population of Greenland sharks in a certain area, and this proved once again to be true. The shark liver was still taken, but that alone could not pay the fishermenís expenses. The local fishermen were satisfied, but this was the last time there was a specialized fishery for Greenland shark in Norway. Some anglers occasionally fish for this shark in deep Norwegian fjords, but that is just for the battle these large sharks can give an angler..


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Greenland shark caught on bottom line somewhere near Greenland.



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Distribution of Greenland shark in the North East Atlantic and Barents Sea.



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In 1947 - 1948 this vessel was fishing Greenland sharks in The Barents Sea (near Hopen and Novaja Semja). Over 20 days on the open sea with no radar, sonar or GPS.


The histrory of the Norwegian fishery for Greenland shark

Only available in Norwegian


Basking shark on

Now in English


Fishing for porbeagles

Now in English


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Tons of liver from Greenland sharks landed by Norwegian vessels in years when there was a significant fishery for Greeland sharks (1908 - 1961)

Photos from the former Norwegian Greenland shark fishery


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A Greenland shark caught on bottom lines. The shark was opened and the liver was released while the dead shark was hanging like this.


Here we see the line, the hook and the chains used to prevent the shark from cutting the line with its teeth. Chains and wire near the hook were used in most fisheries where sharks were the target.

This boat was fishing for porbeagle shark using long lines (witch float freely in the water). The fishermen were sure surprised when a Greenland shark had taken the bait. This shark was expected to be close to the bottom.

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This vessel was hired to fish for Greenland sharks in order to reduce the stocks in certain fjords. The liver was kept in the barrels in the foreground.


Fishing Greenland sharks with bottom lines in a fjord in the early 70`s. Regular fisheries had problems with Greenland sharks having free meals by eating fish from regular long lines. 


This was a famous Norwegian vessel. It succeeded in most fisheries; among them fishing for Greenland Shark using "secret bait".



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