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Alaska's subsistence whaling catch below average

Alex DeMarban

Towering pressure ridges off the coast of Barrow have reduced access to open-water leads where subsistence whaling happens, leaving crews far below their usual catch at this time, an official with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission said.

In a normal year, the community's whalers would have used up about three-quarters of their annual quota, which sits at 22 this year, said Johnny Aiken, the commission's executive director

But instead of using up 16 or 17 strikes, whalers have used only six strikes.

Of that, they've lost two bowhead whales. They have landed only four.

"It's really late in the season and we haven't struck many year," said Aiken. "This has been an extremely difficult year for the whalers up here, especially in Barrow."

The community of 4,200 sits beside the Arctic Ocean.

Strong west winds really "messed up the ice," slamming together massive ice sheets to form pressure ridges comprised of frozen blocks of sea-ice. Even the beaches are full of the ridges and that's not normal, Aiken said.

"Some of the crews even had to chop trail for about a month to get to the lead, so the strike ratio is very low because of that," he said.

Now with the snow melting access by snowmachine is limited, creating another obstacle, Aiken said.

"A lot of the crews have already pulled up, because the trails are really rough now," he said.

Some will keep trying this spring, he said. Many are looking ahead to Part II of whaling in Barrow this year, when the whales migrate back past the community.

"We'll try to catch more in the fall," he said.

This story is posted with permission from Alaska Newspapers Inc., which publishes six weekly community newspapers, a statewide shopper, a statewide magazine and slate of special publications that supplement its products year-round.