U.S.-Japan Whale Feud Playing Out in Alaska


Mar 11, 2001
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June 17, 2002   T

U.S.-Japan Whale Feud Playing Out in Alaska

Treaty: Nations have fought over quotas. A panel's ban threatens Eskimos' livelihoods.

BARROW, Alaska -- It is the season of the midnight sun and still it's snowing. The Arctic Ocean looms up against the shore in chunks of jagged ice, the thermometer has barely reached 26 degrees by noon and the bloody hunks of whale meat George Ahmaogak has just hauled into town have to be thawed before his crew can start slicing into them.

This is the time of year--on the lip between the treacherous Arctic winter and the glorious northern summer--when the bowhead whales push their bulbous heads through the first narrow wedge that opens between the polar ice and the shore ice, creating an eerie symphony of hisses and puffs out in the frozen sea.

Ahmaogak and the other whaling captains climb into their small sealskin umiaqs and paddle out into the ice channels, hoping to plunge their harpoons into the tough skin at the back of the bowhead's brain. The whales thrash and die in the cold sea. Yards and porches all over Barrow fill up with towering piles of meat and bones. It has been more than a thousand years since the bowhead whale first fed an Eskimo along this stretch of Arctic coast. Such history made this community one of the few in the world legally able to skirt the 16-year-old international moratorium on whaling.

But that right was stripped away last month by the International Whaling Commission. In a political maneuver orchestrated by Japan--which wants its own exemption for aboriginal whaling--the commission for the first time rejected a quota for Alaskan and Russian Eskimos. The decision threatens the livelihood of thousands of Inupiat residents along Alaska's northern coast, and it sets the stage for a tough diplomatic contest between the U.S. and Japan.

Alaskan whalers have vowed to defy the ban if necessary--a move that could put the U.S. out of compliance with the international whaling treaty it has worked for years to uphold around the world.

"This is what's kept these Eskimos alive for a thousand years--all that blubber," said Ahmaogak, surveying the piles of meat spread across his yard as a dozen men and women methodically sliced, stacked, packaged and boxed it for storage in the permafrost underground. "You ask the elders, and they'd rather die than go without the whale. Without the whale, I don't think the Eskimo will survive."

While Native Americans in Washington state have battled conservationists and engaged in high-profile court fights over their recent attempts to hunt gray whales in the Pacific, Alaska's Eskimos for years have quietly hunted the bowhead.

The international community for the most part has accepted the principle that aboriginal peoples in places such as Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and the Caribbean are entitled to harvest a small number of whales each year for subsistence purposes, carrying on ancient cultural traditions that could be lost without the seasonal hunts.

In the Alaskan Arctic, the bowhead whale--from steaks to organ stews to mikigaq (a gooey, fermented soup of whale skin and tongue considered to be a delicacy)--makes up well over half of many families' diets in a region with few cheap alternatives. With all outside supplies brought in by barge or plane, beef rib steaks cost $7.68 a pound.

"To understand what subsistence is, you have to come up here when it's 70 below and see what it takes to survive in this stuff," said Ahmaogak, who is mayor of the North Slope borough here.

"You have all these people who say, 'I'm a vegetarian,' and they get up here and complain about cold feet and cold hands and we're not even 10 minutes outside the door," he said. "A T-bone steak will only last an hour and a half, and then you're hungry again. This stuff sticks to your ribs for a while."

Under the aboriginal provisions of the international whaling treaty, Alaskan and Siberian Eskimos since 1978 have shared a subsistence quota that, in recent years, has allowed them to harpoon 67 whales a year--mostly in Alaska. Because part of the quota can carry over from one year to the next, this year's limit is 75 whales.

The current five-year authorization expires after this fall's hunt. But when the U.S. moved to renew it at last month's meeting of the whaling commission, the Japanese delegation balked. Approval requires a three-fourths majority of the 48 member countries. The vote fell one short, thanks to Japan winning the support of delegates from Norway, the Solomon Islands, Mongolia and several Caribbean nations.

The real issue was not Alaska whaling, but Japan's long-unsuccessful petition to conduct its own aboriginal whaling of 50 minke whales. (Japan already takes about 560 whales a year for what is described as a scientific program.) The U.S. has been influential in opposing that proposal, saying it is an apparent attempt to conduct commercial whaling under the guise of aboriginal whaling. The move against the Alaska quota, U.S. officials believe, was an attempt at counter-pressure from Japan.

Japan admitted as much.

"Our coastal whaling bid has been rejected for 15 years. The United States ought to feel the same pain," Masayuki Komatsu, a senior official of Japan's Fisheries Agency, told the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun.

"It's really tragic what's occurred," Rolland Schmitten, the head of the U.S. delegation, said in an interview. "Because the [Alaska whalers] are truly the IWC's model organization for aboriginal subsistence hunting. They have collected more science than likely all the nations involved in the IWC, they have observed the rules, they've played exactly the game that the IWC has asked of them for 25 years. So for them to be caught up in a political issue is grossly unfair."

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission has gathered a wealth of scientific data in recent years demonstrating that the bowhead population, considered endangered around the world, actually is growing in the seas near Siberia and Alaska by 3.2% a year--a rate that could sustain as many as 102 strikes annually. Last year, a total of 75 whales were struck and 49 were landed, all but one of them in Alaska. The number of calves passing by Point Barrow--the long spit of sand that represents the northernmost spot in America--was 9,860 in 2001, about twice the number counted in 1993.

Oil money from nearby Prudhoe Bay has made Barrow one of Alaska's richest native communities--Ahmaogak drives around town in a Hummer, and big, new pickups are parked in many driveways. But whaling remains a crucial economic and cultural asset.

Later this month, natives from all over northern Alaska will travel here--along with planeloads of tourists--for Barrow's annual whale harvest festival. Many of them will pay Joe Schults $60 for a 4-wheel drive excursion out to Point Barrow to see the piles of discarded whale bones--rising like low, sculptured mountains on the horizon--a favorite grazing spot for polar bears. Then they'll probably stop for lunch at the restaurant he runs with his mother, Pepe's North of the Border, billed as the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the U.S.

But today, Schults' T-shirt seems to reflect the sense of unease that has settled over town. "Due to budget cuts," it says, "the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off."

This spring, it's not only the whaling commission that's causing problems.

A gradual warming in the Alaskan Arctic in recent years has caused an earlier than usual bowhead migration and thin and shifting ice conditions. The result is fewer whales struck and even fewer landed, because it becomes difficult and dangerous to drag them up onto the ice.

"The sea ice conditions have not been right, for whatever reason. It's never thawed out this much this early, at least not in my lifetime," said Arnold Brower Jr., a third-generation whaling captain and tribal president of the Inupiat villages of the Arctic slope.

In late May, 58 hunters were stranded on giant ice sheets that began floating out to sea when large cracks opened up shortly after midnight.

"Somebody yelled that the ice had shifted out, and everybody panicked. They all got on their snow machines and tried to go back. Two kids made it across [by jumping], but they had to leave their two snow machines behind," said one of the hunters, Solomon Elavgak. The rest of the group had to be rescued by helicopter.

Because of the difficult ice conditions, Barrow's 42 whaling captains have landed only three whales in the season that is now winding down. (Three others have been brought in elsewhere on the coast.) In a good year, 17 or 18 whales would have been caught by now. The poor season "changes everything," said Brower, who harpooned a 38-foot female this season.

"Now, we're going to have to depend more on caribou, ducks and geese. Fishing."

U.S. officials say they have launched diplomatic efforts to persuade Japan to change its position. If that fails, the U.S. delegation has several options, including filing objections to the IWC decision, seeking an intercessional meeting to reconsider, or unilaterally allowing the Alaskans to proceed under a domestic management regime--an option that would allow the hunt to proceed but technically could put the U.S. in violation of the international whaling agreement.

"The overall goal is that the Alaskan natives and we agree that we'd like to stay underneath the auspices of the IWC. They're used to working under the IWC, they play a big role in the IWC, and it gives them extra legal security, being under both an international and a national management plan," said Schmitten, the U.S. delegate.

But the sentiment in Barrow doesn't lean toward compromise.

"Why should I let these people who don't understand my life govern how I feed my family?" Brower asked. "Why should I have to go to the international arena and explain how I make my living?"

Ahmaogak said the Eskimos are willing to wait for a deal. But only to a point. "If all else fails, we'll go into domestic management," he said. "We're going to resume whaling, no matter what."

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