The International Whaling Commission on Wednesday for the first time approved the automatic renewal of bowhead whaling quotas for Alaska Native subsistence hunters, a decision that supporters said establishes their permanent right to harvest the animal as long as certain conditions are met.
"This means our prayers have been answered and we thank God for his provision and his blessing," said Crawford Patkotak, vice chair of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, his voice quivering during an emotional phone call from Florianopolis, Brazil, where the decision was made.
"It means our people can hunt without the stress and anxiety of our quota diminishing, feeding and providing for our people in perpetuity," he said.
The international commission agreed by a 58-7 vote to renew the Eskimo commission's whaling quota, amounting to 75 strikes annually shared among 11 Alaska villages. A strike is an attempt to kill a whale using bomb-tipped harpoons.
"This is a victory for the people of the North Slope," said Harry Brower Jr., mayor of the North Slope Borough, who, like Patkotak, was part of the U.S. delegation that traveled to Brazil for the meeting.
The international commission also allowed the future, automatic renewal of the quota, as long as the harvests remain sustainable and stocks remain healthy, officials said. The decision eliminates Alaska whalers' efforts every six years to retain their right to hunt from the international body that sets whale harvests.
The commission includes representatives from dozens of countries, some of whom oppose both commercial whaling and aboriginal whaling, leading to uncertainty about whether the quota will be renewed.
"This is a momentous day for all those who reside on the North Slope and Bering Strait regions and I share in the joy that is undoubtedly felt today in villages from Kaktovik to Little Diomede," said Sen. Dan Sullivan, in a prepared statement. "Today's decision means that the Alaska Native hunters will be able to continue their traditional cultural practice and provide food security for generations to come."
The IWC also agreed to increase the number of unused strikes from past years that can be used in a given year, allowing whalers additional flexibility to feed villages after bad weather or other factors complicate hunting.
Patkotak said the Alaska bowhead whalers have come a long way since 1977. At the time the international body, with support from the U.S. government, had banned the subsistence whaling on the belief that bowhead numbers were far lower than they actually were, he said.
Leaders in the region formed the Eskimo whaling commission, and used on-the-ground traditional knowledge and science to prove the animals numbers were far higher than thought. One overlooked point was that whales can migrate under the ice, frustrating efforts by surveyors to properly count them.
"This is a great achievement for our people," said Patkotak.