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AMMASSAK – fish of life


The capelin - ammassak - may be tiny in size, but its cultural and ecological importance in Greenland is immense. The capelin is both a keystone species in the marine ecosystem and a keystone food for Indigenous peoples in Greenland. Focusing on the Disko Bay area, the AMMASSAK project combines Indigenous and scientific knowledge about capelin.


The main activities of the project are:

1) using microbial metagenomics to understand how capelin connects environmental microbial ecosystems to human microbial ecosystems (the human gut microbiome),

2) photographic documentation of the traditional harvesting and preservation of capelin in the Disko Bay area, and

3) communicating the importance of capelin by combining science, art, culture and historical knowledge.


The main aim of the project is to use the capelin to raise awareness of the importance of Greenland's Indigenous place-based diets, including their nutritional, ecological and cultural significance.


The salmonoid capelin - or ammassaat (pl.) in Greenlandic - is synonymous with "fish of life" in Greenland. After spending the winter in deep pelagic waters, capelin migrate in large schools to shallow waters near the coast to spawn. In the central and southernmost parts of West Greenland and the Tasiilaq area in East Greenland they are a temporary and abundant food source for humans and other animals. 

The capelin is a biological keystone species in the Arctic marine ecosystem and the reason why animal species from all over the world migrate to a common geographical location: Disko Bay in West Greenland. From their wintering grounds in Antarctica, Arctic terns undertake the longest migration in the animal kingdom. After spending the winter in the Caribbean, humpback whales swim across the Atlantic to spend the summer here. Harp seals travel in large pods from their breeding grounds in the drift ice off Newfoundland, Canada. They all arrive in Disko Bay late May/early June to harvest capelin alongside Greenlandic families and fishermen.

The capelin has been crucial to human survival in Greenland. Families in the Disko Bay area have been catching and preserving capelin for generations. Capelin, especially in its dried form, is used for human consumption and as dog food. Fresh capelin is considered to be the best bait for longline fishing for the economically important Greenland halibut.


The capelin is caught close to the coast, where the schools are dense, and it is possible to catch large quantities with hand nets. The fish are then laid out to dry on the gently sloping rocks of the coast, on bushes or on drying racks.

Dried capelin is a keystone food in the Indigenous Greenlandic diet. In times when access to fresh food was limited, capelin saved lives. Despite the importance of capelin for many generations and today, capelin, like many indigenous foods in Greenland, has a limited role in the public food system. Capelin contains high levels of calcium - measurements show up to 1100 mg/100g - almost 10 times the amount found in cow's milk. Despite this, health authorities in Greenland have so far neglected the health value of capelin in favour of milk, to which most Inuit are intolerant. Dietary recommendations for children in Greenland state: "Milk is the most important source of calcium. ... The child must drink ½ litre of milk or milk products every day to meet the daily requirement for calcium."



The AMMASSAK project has three main components: 1) research, 2) documentation and 3) communication. All three components depend on close collaboration with local Indigenous knowledge on capelin.   

1) Previous research has shown that capelin dried according to tradition and Indigenous knowledge in Disko Bay harbours a diverse food microbiota with potential implications for flavour and satiety. The AMMASSAK project builds on this previous research by developing a detailed understanding of the development of the food microbiota on capelin through the drying process, in close collaboration with Ilulissat Seafood ApS. This data will be linked to a pilot intervention study (n=1) on the human gut microbiota, where we will be able to test whether the food microbiota of dried capelin is transferred to the human gut microbiota, and if so, how long it persists, and whether a change in microbiota is associated with a change in well-being. This scientific component of the AMMASSAK project will be carried out in the context of:


2) The cultural and ecological importance of the capelin and the close relationship between people, environment and food will be explored and documented through photography. This will be done by accompanying local people in the Disko Bay area as they harvest capelin in the summer, by participating in the drying of the fish and by talking to local people about their relationship with capelin. A preliminary list of objectives includes "Harvesting and storing capelin", "Uses of capelin" (human consumption, dog food, bait in the fishing industry), "Ecological importance" (wildlife that depend on capelin) and "Patterns of capelin" - capelin forms striking visual patterns when placed to dry, resulting in place-specific testimonies of generations of preservation of capelin.   


The results of 1) and 2) will be communicated via:

3) The project aims to communicate the results and findings through multiple channels and with a strong visual profile. Using the photos from 2), combined with the scientific results and information from local people, an outreach strategy is planned, both in scientific journals and to the general public, as well as a book publication dedicated to the capelin.



The AMMASSAK project differs from typical research projects in that it also involves a high degree of outreach. Normally, research projects communicate their results through scientific journals that are only read by other researchers. The story of the capelin in Greenland is absolutely amazing and deserves a wider audience. Of course, people in Greenland already know about the importance of these small fish. But we want to use visual communication to show the importance of the capelin from a different angle. We believe that images can tell a different story than text. You could say that storytelling through images is a more direct way to reach people's minds and hearts. Through photography we want to show the importance of capelin for animals and especially for humans. The images documenting the use of capelin will be used to communicate the scientific results of the project. The images will form the visual profile of the project and will be used for the website, articles and lectures.




The AMMASSAK project is a partnership between Ilisimatusarfik (Greenland University), Globe Institute (University of Copenhagen, Denmark) and visual communicator Carsten Egevang. In addition, stakeholders in the Disko Bay area, hunters and fishermen, are important collaborators in the project.         

Participants are:

Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann (, PhD., is a microbiologist and assistant professor at Ilisimatusarfik – the University of Greenland as well as the Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen. Aviaja is currently leading several research projects on Indigenous foodways in Greenland and the process to establish a bachelor program in biology at Ilisimatusarfik. Aviaja’s work on the Inuit diet and human-microbial interactions through the diet has been published in international scientific journals and has received extensive international attention namely through several podcast interviews and public media articles. Aviaja has also served as a public debater and science communicator for more than 10 years.

Carsten Egevang, ( PhD., is an international award-winning photographer and visual storyteller specialized in documenting wildlife and culture in Greenland. Carsten is the author of several books on Greenland and have conducted professional curated art exhibitions in Greenland, Denmark and abroad. Carsten has more than 25 years of experience with field work in Greenland. Carsten holds a PhD-degree in Arctic Biology from The University of Copenhagen and has worked for several years as a researcher at the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk.


Anders J. Hansen (, PhD., is a biologist and a professor at Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen. Over the years of his scientific career, Anders have been utilizing DNA to address a series of biological, archaeological, forensic, and environmental questions. He primarily focus on the use of DNA to identify species and individuals and describe populations and communities. His preferred biological material is often difficult samples of low quality like ancient bones, sediments, or other complex environmental assemblies.

Mads B. Bjørnsen (, is a PhD-student in microbiology at Globe Institute, University of Copenhagen and at Ilisimatusarfik, University of Greenland, and his project is supervised by Aviaja L. Hauptmann and Anders J. Hansen. The PhD project focus on how gastrophagy, eating the intestines and its content from the prey, microbial influences the gut microbiome up through the arctic food web from the capelin to the human. Mads main research focus is on the gut microbiome and how it influences and interacts with the body. He has previous experience with research in Greenland from his master’s thesis, where he investigated the association between the gut microbiome and pack structure in Greenlandic sled dogs.

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