Village residents in Toksook Bay took to the beach by foot and four-wheeler last week then prayed their thanks after crews hauled in what appeared to be a young humpback whale, an almost unheard-of event in a community not known for whaling.
Though relatively small, residents said it stretched at least 20 feet and was large enough to provide food for many on Nelson Island, home to three villages in Southwest Alaska.
But there's a problem: villages aren't permitted to take humpback whales — which have been protected as endangered — even for subsistence hunts, said Doug DeMaster, deputy commissioner of the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission.
Residents say no one realized the large whale was off-limits or even what species it was at the time of the take. In Toksook Bay, residents hunt beluga whales, which are much smaller and are legal for Alaska Natives to harvest.
"We are not a whaling community," said Robert Pitka, who didn't participate in the hunt but helped with the butchering. "They are too big. We don't know how to hunt them."
Toksook Bay doesn't have a tradition of hunting larger whales, though a lone one was killed years ago.
The IWC, the intergovernmental body that manages whaling around the world, has no quota for humpback whales in the U.S.
"Right now, bowhead whales are the only large whale species that are legal (to hunt) in the U.S.," said DeMaster, who is also director of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, a research branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
State and federal authorities have begun gathering information about the hunt that took the whale, which was held Thursday near the Yup'ik village about 100 miles west of Bethel. Local officers in Toksook Bay, population 600, said they had been contacted over the weekend by an Alaska state trooper from Bethel collecting information and photos of the whale carcass left on the beach.
On Monday, Glenn Charles, a special agent in Anchorage with the enforcement arm of NOAA, said he was just beginning to collect "preliminary information" about the incident.
Residents initially thought the whale killed was a bowhead, said Pitka, 50, who works as a carpenter and a fisherman. They see migrating bowhead in deep water when seal hunting, but leave them alone, he said. In this region, residents aren't equipped with the explosive harpoons used for hunting bowhead in Alaska's far north.
Normally, big whales don't swim near Toksook Bay, said Pitka and other residents. This one was spotted in a channel between sandbars in Kangirlvar Bay, and residents suspect it got off course chasing herring. Hunters thought it was going to become stranded and die, so they decided to target it, he said.
"We don't hunt bowhead whales," Pitka said. "It's not a yearly thing. It's one of those once in a great, great while things that just happened to be."
Village residents said people from other villages on Nelson Island, including Nightmute, decided to hunt the animal with residents from Toksook Bay after spotting it in the area.
Hunters in about eight skiffs went after the whale. The hunt occurred about 45 minutes out from the coast, with the skiffs visible from shore, said Toksook Bay village police officer Phillip Talley.
The tide was going out. The hunters brought their high-powered rifles, used for a quick kill of beluga whales, Pitka said.
This whale was much more of a challenge. Pitka said he was told it took "hundreds of shots" to kill it
Pitka's son, with the same name, posted a video of the hunt on Facebook that showed rifles being fired and the water turning bloody red. The video was later removed.
Residents said the whale was harpooned to help bring it to shore, the same method used with belugas.
"I myself thought they weren't going to get it. I thought it was going to get away. But then they brought it in. It was a surprise for me because it's been a while since they caught one that big," said Joseph Lincoln, general manager of the Nunakauiak Yup'ik Corporation village store in Toksook Bay.
Photos posted on Facebook show the landed whale with the humpback's distinctive bumps on its snout and a towing strap around its tail, with a crowd gathered around it.
"There it was. Oh my goodness," Lincoln said.
Before the butchering began, elders led a community prayer of thanks "for something provided that was never provided before," Pitka said.
Limits of subsistence
Experts with NOAA said the whale indeed appears to be a humpback, both because of the knobs on the snout and its pectoral fins, said Julie Speegle, a spokesperson with NOAA fisheries in Alaska.
Talley said it is unfortunate that people who were subsistence hunting to feed their families took a whale they should not have, though he believes they did not know they were illegally hunting and they thought they could harvest the whale as long as they ate it. Talley, who went to the beach after a crowd gathered to watch the hunters, said he is certain the whale is a humpback.
"It should just be a fine, a decent fine, but I don't think they should get in too much trouble," Talley said of the hunters. "I think the troopers should come out and have a village meeting and say what animals are legal and illegal in the ocean."
Exceptions allow Alaska Natives to harvest some animals for subsistence purposes even though the animals are listed under the Endangered Species Act. For example, bowhead whales are endangered but can be struck and landed in 11 villages, primarily Arctic communities far to the north of Toksook Bay.
But DeMaster said subsistence has limits.
"The subsistence lifestyle is an important lifestyle and it's certainly one the U.S. government supports, but there are also rules that have to be followed," he said.
About 10,000 humpback whales migrate between Alaska and Hawaii, traveling to the Gulf of Alaska, Southeast and the Bering Sea for summer feeding, said Speegle. Humpbacks are popular with whale watching tours in spots such as Seward, especially when big adult whales — which grow more than 40 feet long — shock crowds by breaching out of the water.
NOAA is considering removing that humpback population from the endangered list. The agency in 2015 proposed identifying 14 distinct humpback populations around the world and potentially delisting some, and hopes to publish a decision this year, Speegle said.
Elders have said the village last landed a big whale back in 1998, Talley said. Some residents think it might have been farther back, and that maybe that earlier whale was a bowhead, not a humpback. International Whaling Commission records report zero takes or strikes against humpbacks in the U.S. since 1985.
A happy harvest
Residents in the village said the young whale caught last week was 20 feet to 30 feet long. Four-wheelers couldn't haul it ashore, so a heavy construction vehicle was used to drag it onto the beach by its tail. At one point a hauling chain snapped because of the whale's weight, said Talley.
John Chagluak, a police officer for the tribal entity in the village, saw the crowd and whale after he'd been out hunting for bird eggs. He realized it wasn't a bowhead; he'd seen two of those hauled ashore on the North Slope.
"To me it looked like a baby," he said.
"Pretty much the whole village came down and took what they wanted," collecting whale meat, blubber and skin, said Chagluak. "We took what was given by the people who caught it and cut it up."
On Monday, four days after it had been caught, he said the whale was only about "halfway butchered."
"To me, I think it was a waste," he said, because so much food remained on the whale at the beach.
Asked if he feels sympathy for those who may have mistakenly shot the whale, Chagluak said he knows better than to shoot an animal illegally.
"It's like, too bad on you (if you do)," he said.
Most of the whale meat was frozen, but some is being dried, Pitka said.
His daughter cooked fresh whale steak with rice and onions. It was mild and delicious, not as strong-smelling and dark in color as seal or beluga, he said.
Elders have advised everyone to stick together and support each other if troopers come.
"We're not going to give up our meat and blubber," he said.
Was it a mistake, with the benefit of hindsight?
No, Pitka said. Village residents were able to harvest an animal that otherwise might have rotted in the bay.
"I think what we did was a blessing."
Alex DeMarban reported from Anchorage and Lisa Demer reported from Bethel.