Rural Alaska

Beluga whalers in Northwest Alaska and on North Slope report a successful 2021 season

Utqiagvik hunters Jared Nayakik and Billy Adams cut and packaged bricks of pink meat, sharing their whale harvest with everyone in the room.

“The season was good for Barrow — we’ve landed quite a few whales,” Nayakik said. The hunter is 25 years old and has been whaling since he was 5. “That’s what I live to do.”

Nayakik and other whalers from the Northwest Arctic and North Slope flew to the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee meeting in Anchorage last week. They talked with scientists and wildlife managers about new beluga whale studies, ideas to support the population and preliminary harvest reports.

The committee co-manages Western Alaska belugas together with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The committee’s secretary, Kathy Frost, said that the organization won’t have an official report on how many whales were harvested until the next year, but some hunters shared their impression of the season.

Nayakik’s crew in Utqiagvik landed at least 11 belugas, and a Wainwright hunter, Raymond Aguvluk, said his village was lucky to have harvested 50. Cyrus Harris, representing the Kotzebue Sound area, said that whalers brought home 16 animals, making 2021 the second-highest harvest since 2007.

“It’s been a good season,” said Adams, who works at the North Slope Borough Wildlife Management Department. “We had some good days, more good days than there used to be.”

Hunters were treated to calmer weather this season, and ice stuck a little closer to the shore, making waters less turbulent, Adams said. The animals that villages harvested seemed healthy, too.

“Two or three of them were very thin in the beginning, but in the end, they were like me,” Adams laughed. “They were pretty healthy at the end — big, strong.”

Abundant Eastern Chukchi Sea belugas

While whaling season begins in springtime, summer brings the biggest harvest, said Aguvluk from Wainwright.

“Summertime, we catch them like crazy,” he said with a wide smile.

Around late June, Eastern Chukchi Sea belugas often stay in nearshore waters near Kasegaluk Lagoon, south of Wainwright and north of Point Lay. These two villages are where most of the beluga harvest takes place.

Belugas travel north later in the season, moving into the northern Chukchi and Beaufort seas, according to a study led by Robert Suydam, wildlife biologist at the North Slope Borough Wildlife Department. The whales might reach as far as the Arctic Ocean, penetrating heavy ice cover.

The large Eastern Chukchi Sea beluga population — estimated at approximately 20,000 animals — is not considered at risk from human activities or climate change, according to the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. The average annual subsistence harvest of about 57 whales is well below 293, the maximum number of animals that can be hunted without threatening the population.

While in recent years, Wainwright didn’t catch many whales, this past season brought the village about 50 belugas, according to Aguvluk.

“It was a good beluga season this year in Wainwright. Everybody’s happy,” he said. “There were pounds of belugas. It was awesome.”

With a harvest this big, hunters were able to share meat with each household.

“They don’t miss one household when they get a lot of belugas. We don’t waste one,” Aguvluk said. “That’s our culture — we share.”

Kotzebue Sound: Disappearing whales

Kotzebue Sound also saw “a great year for beluga,” according to Cyrus Harris from the Maniilaq Association’s Hunter Support Program. He said that hunters harvested about 16 whales, making 2021 the second-highest year for harvesting belugas since 2007.

“They were just there,” Harris said about beluga whales. “They just showed up, you know, and then the opportunity presents itself for a harvest.”

Belugas are less abundant in Kotzebue Sound than farther north. In fact, the population in the area has been declining since early 1980, potentially because of excessive harvesting, according to the 2020 Alaska Beluga Whale Committee’s report.

Beluga whale managers, as well as elders and some hunters in the community, have been meeting since 2016 to discuss how to bring Kotzebue Sound belugas back to healthy levels and to recover their former abundance. The main way to preserve the population is to limit the gray beluga hunt from June to mid-July, especially for young animals and females with calves, according to the committee.

Harris said he knows that Kotzebue Sound doesn’t have many belugas, so he doesn’t go out hunting and doesn’t use nets that easily catch young whales. However, Harris spends time close to the whales’ habitat, ready to harvest at the right time.

“I’m always prepared with my hooks,” he said. “I keep them with me all the time just in case the opportunity presents itself, not just for beluga, maybe for seal or walrus, or whatever. I’m just a person that lives being a part of the environment.”

Harris said he caught one animal in Sisualik this season when “it just so happened that a beluga presented themself and gave themself away.”

Utqiagvik: The art of harvesting

Nayakik and his cousins and friends In Utqiagvik went on four or five boat trips this season when the whales were passing and the ocean was calm enough. They caught one whale in the spring, one in the fall and 11 during summer.

“The previous 10 years before this, it was about one to five a year,” Nayakik said.

Nayakik said it is not very common to catch belugas in his community, and the local hunters are still learning how to hunt them.

A good harvest, like the one this year, allows hunters to continue teaching young people their craft, Aguvluk said.

“We are still training young people to hunt belugas, and they’re learning,” he said. ”Even little kids, they’re excited!”

Whaling helps Alaska Native communities mark different phases in the lives of growing hunters, said Utqiagvik’s Adams. It also supports passing down traditions from elders to younger generations.

“There is something to learn when you’re watching an elder,” Adams said. “They have a lot of knowledge. When you listen to their words, you put it in your mind and make it into a movie.”

Of course, the good harvest also provides communities with food. Besides belugas, this season some villages were able to catch bearded seals, walruses, bowhead whales and ringed seals, Adams said. The hunters “didn’t have to go very far out” to catch animals, which made the experience safer, he added.

“We’ve been blessed with those animals because of the conditions we had,” Adams said. “It makes people happier that they’re able to eat a variety of different animals.”