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In northern Alaska, spring whaling season yields estimated 990 tons of bowhead

Alex DeMarban
Courtesy Herman Ahsoak

With their five-year whaling quota up for renewal this summer, Alaska's bowhead subsistence hunters are wrapping up an abundant spring season for the big town of Barrow and a few other villages, thanks partly to smooth sea ice that made for relatively easy access to whaling grounds.

For the first time in many years, Barrow -- perched on the high arctic coastline, the farthest-north community in America -- exhausted its entire year's whaling quota in the spring, landing 14 bowheads and losing eight, said Johnny Aiken, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission.

That doesn't mean Barrow's 35 crews are out of luck come fall. At Barrow's request, other whaling communities will likely share their unused strikes with the city of 4,300 -- by far the largest community that depends on the black leviathan's rich blubber and meat.

"The (communities) don't like to hold the strikes that can be used for other villages," Aiken says. "Someone will share with Barrow and if Barrow gets to go whaling, the village will get some muktuk, too, if they want."

14 successful crews

In Barrow, 14 different whaling crews each took one whale, including Aiken's. "We were lucky," he says.  

Barrow's success is a stark turnaround from last spring, when Arctic Ocean storms slammed massive sheets of sea ice together, creating huge pressure ridges whalers scaled and hacked through to set up camp at the water's edge. All that work delayed the season start. By the time crews were on the water, many of the behemoths had already migrated past the village, some speculated.

This year, the shore-fast ice off Barrow was relatively flat, making for quicker trail breaking. Good weather in recent weeks also provided plenty of whaling opportunity.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission divided the annual quota of 75 strikes between 10 villages and Barrow. In the spring season that started last month, the 11 communities landed 33 whales and lost 14, leaving 28 strikes for the rest of the year.

 That's a lot of muktuk. That's the Inupiat word for the blubber that sort-of resembles watermelon -- fresh, pink and with a rind of black skin attached.

More might be hauled ashore in this spring: The village of Wainwright, with three landed and two strikes remaining, was still trying Friday.

In October 2007, we caught up with a whaling crew in Barrow after a successful hunt. Soon the crew realized that they had landed a pregnant whale. There was no way to know that fact, however, when they went after the whale, and some of the men expressed sadness.

990 tons of whale   

How big was the average whale? About 30 feet long, Aiken said.

The general rule of thumb among whalers is that bowheads tip the scales at 1 ton per foot. Using that rough math, about 990 tons was caught this year.  

Whales about 30 feet long are just the right size, not too big and not too small, Aiken said. They make for perfect eating because they're generally younger with softer meat. Because they're not too large, they can also be towed ashore and butchered more quickly, allowing the internal heat to escape faster, resulting in fresher-tasting blubber and meat.

Elsewhere on the North Slope, the Inupiat village of Point Hope, located 300 miles southwest of Barrow, also had a noteworthy spring. That village of about 650 landed five whales and lost none. They have five strikes remaining for the fall.

Savoonga, a village of 700 located on St. Lawrence Island not far from Russia's shores, landed six whales and also lost none. Whalers there have two strikes left for the fall.

Weather also cooperated in Wales, a Bering Strait village of about 150 people located at the westernmost tip of North America. A crew landed the community's first whale in several years because the sea ice provided a solid base for hauling the whale ashore with an ice-anchored pulley system powered by humans. In past years, warmer-than-normal temperatures softened the ice too much.  

In the whaling villages this spring, crews had a 70 percent struck-loss ratio. In the whaling villages this spring, 70 percent of the whales struck were landed. If that percentage gets too low, it can provide fodder for critics of whaling who especially don't like to see whales struck by whaling bombs without being landed.

An 80 percent ratio is normal for an entire year. Percentages usually rise in the fall, Aiken says.

Quota renewal due in June

Scientists say the endangered bowhead population has grown for years.

The stock that migrates off Alaska's coast is estimated to be more than 13,000 whales, said an official with the North Slope Borough's wildlife department said this spring.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is now looking ahead to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama starting in late June, where a delegation of Alaska whalers will look to renew their quota for five more years.

Issues of concern include new commissioners who may not understand the value of bowhead whaling to Alaska's Inupiat. There's also the matter of how commissioners will view recently struck plea agreements with federal prosecutors involving two former officials in the whaling commission.   

Reforms have been implemented to prevent that from happening again, including a rule that bars a single person from cashing and writing checks on their own.

"We've made a lot of progress the last two years and we've had very good independent audits," Aiken said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com