Indigenous hunters in Alaska initially believed they were legally hunting a beluga whale when they unlawfully killed a protected gray whale with harpoons and guns after the massive animal strayed into a river last year, a federal investigative report said.
After the shooting began, the hunters then believed the whale to be a bowhead, according to the report released to The Associated Press last week through a public records request.
"The hunters also believed that if they were the first ones to shoot or harpoon the whale, the kill would be theirs," it states. "This comes with a large amount of community pride."
Federal law prohibits killing gray whales, though Alaska Natives are allowed to kill other whales. The hunt underscores the tension between animal rights activists who want to safeguard at-risk species and indigenous residents who depend on subsistence fishing and hunting as part of their ancient culture and traditions.
The whale strayed into the Kuskokwim River near the Yup'ik village of Napaskiak on July 27, 2017. The 37-foot whale was cut up, with about 20,000 pounds of meat and blubber reportedly distributed among residents in more than five communities.
U.S. officials didn't prosecute the hunters. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sent letters to officials in three communities advising Native leaders about the law and limits to subsistence whaling.
NOAA officials had declined to say which communities received the March 2018 letters, which also warned that future offenses would be dealt with more severely. The documents show the letters were sent to tribal leaders in Bethel, Napaskiak and Oscarville.
Vivian Korthuis, CEO of the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, got a letter and said in a statement Monday that the organization respects national laws and international treaties to protect whales.
"We have provided educational presentations about whaling last October in our annual convention to help educate the region we serve," Korthuis wrote. "NOAA and other federal agencies are always encouraged to interact with the tribes on a government-to-government basis."
Napaskiak tribal administrator Sharon Williams said the Native council discussed the issue about two months ago.
"The incident came and went," Williams said. "We got reprimanded and that's it."
The other leaders who received the letters could not immediately be reached for comment Monday.
The Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute criticized NOAA for not pushing for charges over a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Institute wildlife biologist DJ Schubert also questioned the claim that the hunters originally believed the gray whale to be a much smaller, white beluga, and then a bowhead.
Subsistence hunting of smaller beluga whales is allowed in the region. Bowheads, however, can only be legally hunted by 11 villages farther north that are authorized by the International Whaling Commission.
And the commission only allows a small number of gray whales to be harvested by Russian hunters.
"We have laws in this country. Laws have to be followed," Schubert said. "If laws are not going to be followed, why have them?"
In a similar case in 2016, Native villagers in Toksook Bay killed a protected humpback whale. It also prompted a NOAA investigation that did not result in prosecution.
Killing the gray whale last year helped Natives who got its meat and blubber after much of the salmon they had harvested was ruined by heavy rains, Williams said last year. The rain prevented the fish that was being dried outside from preserving properly.
Eastern Pacific gray whales, also called California gray whales, are protected by federal rules. They feed in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas in summer and migrate down the West Coast each winter to breed, mostly in the bays of Baja California. The whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.