Alaska bowhead whalers who enjoyed a phenomenal spring hunting season now have more good news to celebrate: The International Whaling Commission extended their whaling limits for another six years.
The quota, approved early Tuesday in Panama City, Panama, allows Alaska and Russian whalers to divide up to 336 whales over six years. The limit hasn't changed in the past 15 years, and Alaska is expected to take the vast majority of those whales.
How will Alaska whalers celebrate now that their work is done in the seaside city? Head to beaches? Enjoy some nightlife?
Nope. Return to Alaska and be happy, said George Noongwook, a whaler from Savoonga who chairs the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The organization divides Alaska's share of the whaling limits among 11 villages.
"It was a tense moment for a while," said Noongwook, speaking by phone from the hotel where approval had come less than an hour earlier. "A lot of people were worried. Now we can go on and continue with our lives for at least the next six years."
Whalers had some reason to be fearful, thanks to opposition to whaling by some of the 89 countries that make up the International Whaling Commission. In 2002, the commission approved the quota in a special fall meeting after failing to do so at the regular meeting. In 2007, Alaska's late Sen. Ted Stevens used his political might to sway votes toward the Eskimo whalers, according to past news accounts.
Apparently helping this time was an unprecedented move by three aboriginal whaling countries to join forces, officials at the meeting said. Russia, the U.S. and St. Vincent and the Grenadines -- an island country of 120,000 residents in the Caribbean Sea west of Barbados -- wanted their limits renewed, not increased. So they presented a single proposal that was harder to oppose. The vote was 48-10.
More help came from a bill introduced by the Alaska congressional delegation, said Noongwook. The proposal sent a message that if the international body didn't extend the quota, the U.S. would side-step the commission and permit whaling anyway, while still following conservative management practices enforced by the international whaling commission.
The meetings in Panama over the issue began in late June. A large delegation of whalers traveled from Barrow and three North Slope villages for the meetings, with scientists, staff, lawyers, whalers and spouses in tow, said Noongwook. They handed out brochures, manned booths, and lobbied delegates from other member countries.
As for sightseeing, there hasn't been much, officials said. "We went last week to see the Panama Canal," he said.
The lobbying even reached Washington, D.C. Before the meetings in Panama began, whalers gave presentations on the value of subsistence whaling and met with ambassadors of some IWC member countries.
In addition to overall limits on the numbers of whales that can be landed, Alaska and Russian whalers are also allowed a set number of strikes. In 2012, Alaska whalers received up to 75 strikes, while Russia whalers got seven. About 11,000 aboriginal people in far-eastern Russia depend on whaling for their diet, but those villagers mainly catch gray whales, about 120 a year. Alaska Eskimo whalers prefer the bowhead.
The same strike limit is expected for next year, the Eskimo whaling group said. A strike is defined as a penetration with a whaling weapon. About three-quarters of whales struck are landed.
Alaska hunters use harpoons and darting guns that fire explosive projectiles into the whale.
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com