Under quotas set by the International Whaling Commission, the Inupiat people of Alaska and Chukotan people of far eastern Siberia are allowed to harvest a small number of bowhead whales each year. The annual harvest is approximately 0.1-0.5% of the estimated bowhead population. In May 2021, my son, Alex, and I visited Utqiaġvik, AK and were invited to the home of one of the whaling crews that was dividing up portions of a whale that had just been taken.
Other posts from our Alaska trip in May 2021.
Most people are saddened by the thought of hunting whales. Whales are magnificent animals. They are intelligent, enormous, and pose no threat to humans. Over the last few centuries commercial hunting by industrialized nations drove many whale species to the brink of extinction.
But subsistence bowhead whale hunting is a different story. When thinking about hunting by the Iñupiat peoples of Alaska, keep in mind the location and tradition of the hunters and the fact that bowhead whale populations are increasing. Also, unlike the commercial operations, Iñupiat hunters have great respect and admiration for the bowhead.
Finally, I must tip my hat to the fortitude and tenacity of these people who put their lives on the line in hunts that entail multiple potentially lethal scenarios. Iñupiat hunters cooperate with researchers in the study of bowhead activities and physiology. The bowhead genome has been sequenced and is being explored to understand the many remarkable aspects of their biology, such as their great longevity, ability to control fat deposits, low incidence of cancer, and bone metabolism.
Utqiaġvik is the political and cultural center of life for the Iñupiat people of Alaska’s giant North Slope Borough. Inhabited by less than 5,000 residents, Utqiaġvik is by far the largest of eight settlements in the borough. The North Slope Borough covers an area that is larger than 39 U.S. states and has a total population of only around 7,000.
Utqiaġvik is one of the world’s most isolated towns. Situated 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it is the most northerly settlement in the United States and one of the most northerly cities in the world. Good luck trying to drive to Utqiaġvik because there ain’t no roads. Supplies arrive by air or the lone barge that docks in July, ice conditions permitting.
Hunting bowhead whales is economically and culturally essential for the Iñupiat. The cost of living in Utqiaġvik and other North Slope communities is sky high, and there aren’t a lot of jobs. People must pay what I consider to be outrageous prices for basic foodstuffs like $12 for a gallon of milk and $11 for a pound of hamburger. Taking advantage of the nutritional value of free whale meat is the only way the Iñupiat can remain self sufficient in their homeland.
It is believed that Iñupiat have hunted bowheads since they arrived on the North Slope as long ago as the time of Christ. Community life revolves around the hunts and the sharing of the harvest. The bowhead whale is the center of their communal lifestyle, and I use “communal” in the highest and best sense of the word. One reason whale is shared for free is, as explained below, scores of people are involved in landing and butchering a whale.
The plaque provides a wealth of information about bowhead whales and states in part:
Bowhead whales (Balaena Mysticetus) spend most of their life near sea ice and do not migrate to warmer or tropical waters to give birth to their young. They have very thick blubber, up to 1 1/2 feet in thickness giving them insulation, food storage, and streamlining. These are very large whales up to 60 feet in length may weigh as much as 120,000 pounds and apparently have a life span similar to humans. Evidence such as the finding of stone hunting points in recently harvested bowheads and examination of the eye lens proteins suggest a life span of perhaps 150 years. Their head is very large, about one third of total body length. Adults are mostly black with white on their chins and bellies, the calves are born lighter in color.
They winter in the Bering Sea and migrate to the Chukchi, Beaufort and East Siberian Seas during the spring, summer and fall months. Calves are born in the late winter and spring, weigh around 2,000 pounds at birth and are about 13-14 feet in length.
Bowhead whales feed by swimming with their mouths open and strain zooplankton (copepods, euphausids, and other invertebrates) through the baleen plates which hang down from the upper jaw. In adult whales the baleen plates may reach lengths of over 14 feet.
Bowheads are rather slow swimmers, moving at approximately 2 to 4 miles per hour. Most dives have been observed to be 6 to 17 minutes although dives of 30 minutes or more have been recorded. When moving through ice they regularly break through in order to breathe, and have been observed to break ice up to 2 feet in thickness. The bowhead has been hunted by Eskimo people of Alaska for several thousand years. The subsistence hunt is of great nutritional and cultural significance with the whale providing oil, baleen, meat and muktuk (skin with underlying blubber)…
Exhibited here is the skull from a large female bowhead whale (#87B6, 15.7m or 51 feet 5 inches body length) taken on October 21, 1987 east of Point Barrow by Whaling Captain Lawrence Ahmaogk. The whale probably weighed about 100,000 pounds or more. Fourteen hunting boats helped to tow it to shore at Barrow. Heavy equipment was used to help pull it onto the beach. The removal of blubber, meat and baleen took almost 12 hours and this animal served as a major food source for the Inupiat people of Barrow. This skull is approximately 18.5 feet long and weighs at least 2 tons.
Since this plaque was made, scientists have increased the estimated lifespan of bowhead whales to 200 years or more. Bowhead whales have unique anatomical and physiological attributes. Their sequenced genome holds promise for the advance of medical knowledge related to cell senescence, bone biology, and fat metabolism in mammals including humans. These animals may hold the key to prolonged human lifespans and maybe cancer cures or treatments.
Subsistence Bowhead Whaling Is Carefully Controlled And The Alaska Population Is Increasing
The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is a group of 89 countries that have ratified the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, Currently, the IWC permits indigenous communities in Denmark (Greenland), the Russian Federation, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United States to engage in subsistence whaling on certain whale stocks.
For the period 2019-2025, the IWC set a catch limit of 392 bowhead whales landed from the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock, which includes the U.S. and Russia. The number of yearly bowhead whales struck may not exceed 67, except unused strikes from the three prior quota blocks can be carried forward and added to the annual strike quota of subsequent years, provided that no more than 50 percent of the annual strike limit is added to the strike quota for any one year. At the end of the 2020 harvest, there were 33 unused strikes available for carry-forward, so the combined strike quota set by the IWC for 2021 is 100 (67 + 33). Under the arrangement with Russia, Russian natives may use no more than seven strikes, and the Alaska natives may use no more than 93 strikes in 2021.
The four bowhead populations, are named for the seas they inhabit: Okhotsk Sea (OKH; 218 individuals); the East Greenland, Svalbard, Barents Sea (EGSB; 318 individuals); the East Canada-West Greenland Sea (ECWG; 6,400 individuals); and the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (BCB; 16,800 individuals). The first two groups remain in an endangered status but the last two have recovered to pre-commercial levels and continue to grow.
Based on the overall quotas set by the (IWC), the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) determines the number of strikes and whales that can be harvested by each of the 11 Iñupiat communities in Alaska. Utqiaġvik is allotted about 25 landed whales each year.
Only licensed whaling captains or crew under their control can hunt bowheads. Utqiaġvik has 51 licensed whaling captains. Crew cannot receive monetary compensation for hunting, and no one may sell whale products from whales taken in the hunt except for authentic Native American handicrafts.
Bowhead whales are hunted in the spring and fall. The time of year makes a big difference in how the hunt is conducted. In spring, hunters must venture out onto the ice for miles to reach open water. They make camp with tents at the edge of the ice and wait for a bowhead to appear.
Ice complicates the hunt and multiplies the dangers hunters face. To get to open water in spring, it is necessary to break miles of trail over frozen wasteland littered with heavy, jagged blocks of ice created as ice flows crash into and over each other like tectonic plates. Crews use snowmobiles to haul sleds with supplies and materials for the camps on the ice edge and bring the meat of butchered whales back to town.
They say that making the trails and keeping them open is hard work. Walking along the ice near town we could see several snowmobile trails and occasionally a snowmobile heading out or returning.
Crew awaiting a bowhead sighting.
Crews may camp for days or weeks before spotting and landing a whale. Floating ice can crash into the shore-fast ice with great force creating fissures and new pressure ridges. Hunters keep a sharp eye out for marauding polar bears and any signs that the ice might break up and leave them adrift.
When a whale is spotted, hunters chase it in a boat called an umiak. It is made of a driftwood or whalebone frame pegged and lashed together, over which walrus or bearded seal skins are stretched. Because bowheads swim so slowly hunters can catch up to them in umiaks using only oars or paddles.
Another problem with spring hunts is getting the whale onto the ice and butchering it. Global warming is thinning the ice and potentially making it the ice too thin to support a large whale. When a whale is struck and landed, crews need help to drag it out of the water by hand. They can’t get tractors and backhoes on the ice but they can use that type of equipment in the fall when whales are landed on the beach. Assistance is also required to cut up the whale before the body heat melts the ice.
This video provides an excellent overview of a spring hunt and the sharing of the harvest. It also affords insight into the respect the Iñupiat have for bowhead and the almost spiritual nature of the experience of the hunt and sharing of the bounty. The Iñupiat believe the whales sacrifice themselves so the Iñupiat can live.
The fall hunt presents fewer problems and allows the use of heavy equipment on land. Weather is warmer although the water temperature changes little. Boats can launch from the shore making it possible to use large motorized craft in the hunt for and towing of whales.
For comparison, here is a video of a fall hunt.
Sharing The Harvest
During our tour of Utqiaġvik, Sangwan, our taxi drive who is a former Thai Buddhist monk, brought us by one house full of people preparing to distribute portions of the whale they had just landed.
There is an order to how the harvest is shared that is well known in the community. We saw slabs and bags of meat and blubber at several homes that were left outside for people to take their pick.
Having so much fresh meat outside was a little concerning because of the prevalence of polar bears and our walks around the business district near our hotel, the King Eider Inn. Thankfully, the polar bears were probably on the ice scavenging areas where whales carcasses were left behind. Polar bears are wise to keep their distance from town because they are also on the Iñupiat’s authorized subsistence menu.
We were given a small allotment of the bowhead buffet.
We tried a little bit of each item. Everything was extremely chewy except for the blubber. There wasn’t much taste to any of it. The dark portions were the closest to edible for me. Bowhead must be an acquired taste. If bowhead was the difference between starving and surviving, I can see how that taste could be easily and quickly acquired.
The bowhead bounty lasts the year round. What is not consumed immediately is stored in ice cellars.
Hunting bowheads is a dangerous business. Upon returning home, I read that a member of one Utqiaġvik crew died in an accident on the ice just a few days after we left. In 2018 two whalers died when their boat capsized while towing a struck bowhead.
Celebration – Nalukataq
In late June, locals celebrate the successful whale-hunting season with dances, songs, eating traditional meals made with whale meat, campfires, and other activities. The most interesting tradition is perhaps a blanket toss, where dancers are thrown high in the air from a blanket made of seal skin.
I have mixed emotions about hunting whales. However, the Iñupiat have done so for more than 1,000 years in a respectful and responsible way that has allowed them to coexist with the whales. Now that commercial whaling has ceased, these subsistence hunts pose no threat to the continued growth of the bowhead population. Furthermore, they allow a proud people to maintain their culture and live self sufficiently in one of the harshest environments on Earth. I certainly admire their resourcefulness and courage.
What do you think of the Iñupiat and their whaling lifestyle?