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Arctic Ocean delivers bowhead bounty for Alaska subsistence whalers

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
Polar bears approach Karl Brower as he butchers a whale on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears play on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents butcher a whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Eddie Rexford butchering a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
From left, Eddie Rexford, Karl Brower, and Jonas Mackenzie butcher a bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents butcher and distribute meat from a 44' bowhead whale, the first harvest of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Polar bears chase off a dog that escaped from its owner in Kaktovik. The village has one of the largest concentrations of polar bears in the world. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Children celebrate the first successful whale hunt of the year atop a 44' Bowhead whale in Kaktovik on September 5, 2012.
Courtesy Dania Moss
Sims store is one of three small stores in Kaktovik, offering an array of canned and frozen foods, but hardly any fresh items, and what they do offer is very expensive. September 8, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Kaktovik residents begin butchering a 44' Bowhead whale on September 5, 2012.
Courtesy Dania Moss
The village of Kaktovik, on Alaska's North Slope, is the only permanent settlement in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's special 1002 area, where there is great oil and gas potential. September 10, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Charles Brower, Jr helps butcher Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Rev. Mary Ann Warden, second from right, leads her congregation in worship at the Kaktovik Presbyterian Church. They sing in both English and Inupiaq. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Women cut muktuk, or whale skin and blubber, for a feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Issac Akootchook, 90 years old, walks home after church in Kaktovik. September 9, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
A new subdivision on the outskirts of Kaktovik looks into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's 1002 coastal plain. September 10, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Family and community members gather at the house of Joe Kaleak for a feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Shell and other oil companies are embarking on offshore oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic. Meantime, the coastal plain in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remains off limits to oil drilling.
Aaron Jansen illustration
Joe Kaleak, Sr fixes a harpoon at his house. His son George Kaleak, Sr. caught the first whale of the year the day before. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Isabel Kanayurak serves whale meat at a feast celebrating the first whale of the year in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Children play with an iPad at the feast celebrating Kaktovik's first whale of the year. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo
Eddie Rexford pauses while butchering a Bowhead whale head on the beach in Kaktovik. September 6, 2012
Loren Holmes photo

After a relatively safe and successful fall whaling season most North Slope crews are nearly finished with whaling efforts, though some farther west communities will still go out. A total of 15 whales have been landed, and only one was lost after being struck.

A successful spring hunt in Barrow landed 14 bowhead whales and lost eight, which fulfilled their annual quota. Barrow crews still went out for fall whaling, however, after strikes were transferred to the larger community.

Two strikes were transferred from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission bank, and four from Kivalina, which did not fill its quota in the spring.

"Barrow got their six and four more were transferred from Point Hope," said Johnny Aiken, executive director of the AEWC.

Of the four transferred from Point Hope, three have been landed and one remains, Aiken said.

In the middle of this week Barrow crews were waiting for some choppy marine conditions to subside before heading out to pursue that last strike.

"Point Hope didn't reach their quota last spring because of ice conditions, weather, that sort of thing," Aiken said. "And they don't really go fall whaling. They saved one in case they decided to go check it out."

Point Hope landed five whales this spring, not losing any. They had five remaining strikes.

If a community doesn't think it will be able to use up its strikes in the given year, they will often transfer them to another community. Muktuk is then often shared with the community who has given their strikes.

The AEWC has a total annual quota of 74 strikes.

"We still have two in the bank," Aiken said, "which I think the folks in the St. Lawrence area might want to use later on."

Wainwright had one strike left of their annual quota, after the spring hunt. No crews have gone out as of yet said one local captain, but mid-October is prime time for that community's hunt and a few are expected to go.

Savoonga still has two strikes left, but will likely not start its fall whaling until December, Aiken said.

Nuiqsut got its four and are finished for the year, Aiken said, and Kaktovik landed two out of three to complete its fall whaling as well. In Kaktovik, the hunt for the final strike was delayed due to a death in the village, but other than that crews faced no unexpected delays or dangers, other than typical fall weather.

"Yes we've had a safe season," Aiken said. "Although the weather was a little windy and rough at times. (Crews) managed to stay safe."

Average bowhead size this fall was around 29 feet, Aiken said, though Ned Arey's crew did land a 43-foot whale — the largest of the season.

Barrow has 35 registered whaling captains, by far the largest concentration in one village, with a couple more registered in the outlying villages that fall under the AEWC umbrella.

The International Whaling Commission renewed catch limits for AEWC communities this summer in Panama, during its five-year review of subsistence whaling quotas. The AEWC limit stayed at the previous limit, 74, a decision Aiken was pleased with.

"The quota renewal process went very well actually," Aiken said. "It turned out better than we ever expected. We thought that we were going to have some problems trying to get our quota but we were fortunate that the IWC decided to hear aboriginal subsistence quota requests."

Not so fortunate were aboriginal subsistence whaling communities in Greenland, whose quota was removed entirely. That loss saddened subsistence whaling communities world-wide, Aiken said.

"It was very heartbreaking for all of us," he said.

Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com. This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.