A bit more about Iñupiat subsistence whaling

My post on the Anagi crew’s whale has gotten a number of comments from people who are interested, one way or another, in whales.  Some of them are genuinely interested in learning more about whales & Iñupiat whaling; others appear not to be.  I’m going to try to answer some of the questions, and provide links to sites that can give even more information.

But first,  see this Public Service Announcement.

OK, now a bit of history.  Alaska Natives (and in fact many other Native Americans and Canadian First Nations people) have been whaling for 2000 years or more, since before the Thule culture developed, based on archaeology.  Aboriginal whaling did not damage the whale stocks in any way that can be detected.  What damaged whale stocks was European (and later Euro-American) commercial whaling.  The bowhead was popular with commercial whalers because it was non-agressive and had a lot of blubber for whale oil, plus long baleen.  Most Eastern Arctic stocks were decimated by the early 19th century.

In the western North American Arctic, commercial whaler Thomas Welcome Roys first cruised north of the Bering Strait in 1848, starting a rush to catch the plentiful and naive Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort stock of bowheads on which so many coastal Alaska natives and their inland trading partners depended.  The whales soon became skittish and scarce and many Alaska Natives died of starvation.

Once oil was struck in Pennsylvania, one of the big reasons for hunting whales diminished.  But the baleen, the plates in a whale’s mouth that they use to filter-feed, was still valuable for buggy whips and corset and collar stays.  Bowheads have by far the longest baleen of any whale (15 feet or more from a big whale), so they were still hunted until those items were no longer in fashion or needed.

Many coastal Alaska Natives had become involved in commercial whaling, including shore-based commercial whaling carried out with traditional Iñupiat techniques with Yankee style harpoons, to support their families.  After commercial whaling ended, coastal whaling communities continued these hunts, combining traditional techniques and traditional and modern technology.

In the late 1970’s, some Western biologists, who were not experienced in the Arctic and knew little about bowhead whales (biologists didn’t back then) tried to count bowheads.  They believed that the whales were scared of ice!  They thought the bowheads had to travel in a lead and would come up to breathe in the lead so they could be counted.  Even if that were true, they didn’t account for the fact that there are multiple leads, and that the whales only have to breathe every so often and that wouldn’t necessarily be where the observation post was.  They came up with a count of several hundred whales, and of course, sounded the alarm.  A moratorium was declared on Alaska Native whaling in 1977 (years before the moratorium on commercial whaling, I might add).

Since many families got (and still do get today) a significant portion of their meat from whales, this was a huge problem.  Although wages may look high in places like Alaska’s North Slope, costs are high too, and many families do not have someone who is working in the cash economy and can afford to feed a family on store food and whatever else they can hunt (and of course full-time work does interfere with hunting, which was traditionally a full-time occupation itself).  Most Iñupiat had never heard of the International Whaling commission, and couldn’t understand why they felt it appropriate to starve human beings by forbidding them to feed themselves.

They were particularly puzzled because senior whaling captains and hunters who had spent many decades on the ice had observed that the bowhead population appeared to be growing from the depths it had sunk to by the end of commercial whaling.  They knew that bowheads are not scared of ice.  In fact they can breathe under quite thick ice (they become positively buoyant and use the bow on their head where their nostrils are to push up the ice, cracking enough to let air into the little tented space formed under the ice and breathe there, and then submerge and go on about their business), and that they would not restrict travel to the near shore lead, so they knew the count was wrong.

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, with many cooperating researchers over the years, has been studying bowhead whales ever since.  They soon developed a much better way to count them, which is continually refined.  Counts now show an annual rate of increase of 3.2%, which is really high for such long-lived animals.

The Alaska Native Bowhead hunt is highly regulated.   The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) manages the hunt under authority from the US government.  There is a quota of strikes (not whales taken, but whales struck so there is an incentive to land every whale struck if humanly possible), which is established based on document subsistence needs of each whaling community, in light of the population estimates. This quota is set so that communities get what they need and no more.  The harvest is considerably below what population biologists would consider a sustainable harvest if they were talking about elk, or caribou, or mule deer.  As long as something else, like marine noise or a massive oil spill in Arctic waters, doesn’t come along and decimate the population the way commercial whaling did, this is absolutely a sustainable harvest, carried out by people who entire culture is centered around that harvest.

The AEWC divides the quota between communities, based on active crews and population, and approves the transfer of strikes between communities (if, say, the ice is bad in one place and they can’t catch whales, they may transfer their strikes to a place with better conditions) since the maktak and meat is shared and everyone on the North Slope and beyond benefits if whales are taken.  Only captains and crews registered with the AEWC are allowed to take whales, and violations of rules, ceasefires, etc can and has led to punishment or suspension of the offending captain.

When a whale is taken there are traditional rules for sharing which vary by community.  In general, specific shares go the captain, the boat (itself–although obviously the boat owner disposes of the boat’s share), the harpooner, the other crew members, and the other boats which helped tow the whale back to be cut up.  Anyone who shows up to help with the butchering (even a little) gets a share.  My daughter helped a very little once when she was about 8, and she came home with a small share.  The captain’s wife and her helpers cook round the clock after the whale is ashore, and when they are ready, the captain’s flag is hoisted and anyone who wants can go and get fed (they will usually send to-go plates to house-bound Elders).

After that, the captain and crew get ready for a celebration where a great deal more of the whale is shared with whomever shows up.  People get whale meat, maktak, kidney, intestine, tail, flipper, gums, plus goose soup, mikiaq (whale blubber, meat & blood, fermented–and before you say gross, when was the last time you ate curdled drained milk with mold on it–AKA a nice Stilton or Brie?), rolls, cakes, fruit, etc.  Most families in the community go to at least one of these every year.  Many go to all of them.  The amount given to each person depends on how many in the family (and the servers pretty much know or the people sitting around do, so no one fibs).  Captains also give out meat & maktak at Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts to whomever shows up (usually much of the community), and usually will provide some for potluck and other festivities as well.  They also share with Elders & folks who need it during the year.  Most of the folks with whom it is shared share it farther.  Shares travel to Anchorage and even to the Lower 48.  Some of the people who get shares send back things like berries or smoked salmon from their area, or caribou from the interior.

None of the whale, or any other marine mammal for that matter, can be sold, with the exception that Alaska coastal Natives can use baleen or bone or ivory to make handicrafts, which they then may sell.  They are not allowed to waste the rest of the animal just to get these products.

There is a great list of links to good solid information on the bowhead whale and bowhead hunt here.

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13 thoughts on “A bit more about Iñupiat subsistence whaling

  1. Never met a whale I didn’t like. I acquired a taste for Bowhead maqtaq and fermented meat in the early 60’s . Kenney Toovak caught a grey whale that fall. In Bethel, gifts of beluga and occasional grey whale were common. Later in Wasilla gifts of Bowhead were more common. On Nelson Island, my relatives caught three beluga this year. Mostly we get walrus, bearded and ring seal and spotted seals in the summer and fall. We also eat a lot of dried herring and halibut. My favorites are fermented white fish and herring. Fermented fish and meat are nutritious and for me easy to digest. Yes, it may stink but so does cheese and sour kraut. Nelson Island people also eat a lot of moose, musk ox, geese, swans, and crane. And any thing else they can catch. My mother-in-law favored otter. Food is wood! and waste of food endangers everyone! The last time I went out to Nuwuk or Birnirk was in 1963 after a big storm.

  2. Interesting read, thanks!
    It’s interesting to compare the population studies & biostats you posted about the Bowhead .. with what’s happening in the rest of the world. When you consider all the toxicity problems,largely PCP’s, heavy metals, massive oil spills and leaks along with chemical cleanup dispersants .. AND gamma radiation contamination ..AND supertrawler/longline/drift & gill nets .. ALL working to decimate ocean carrying capacity …… You will see how supremely important earth’s final refuge and regeneration sites are .. like yours. Yours is tops! You have so many animal types that it’s not unusual for a half dozen animal types to be popped in your mouth every week.. esp during seasons of rebirth, socializing, and heavy feeding. Protecting a critical recharge zone for a world of ocean life, is a phenomenal responsibility. Environmental concerns are focusing on arctic regions as the rest of North America is already tightly controlled by expensive and infrequent periods permitting game animal harvest. Your part of the world has statistically become a recreational hunting area. Subsistence level harvesting .. the basis of your allowances ..has become near non-existent. Grocery stores now carry an excess of whale product at prices set for the affluent buyer. Many suggest this is a very important time to demonstrate highly responsible conservation practices .. so that government does not take over. It’s always better to have private control. but that requires a cut back on recreational, non-subsistence, profiteering operations of whale slaughter and meat/body part distributions .. and to strictly record accurate harvest data. It is hoped that is sufficient to keep govt from interfering. Hunters appreciate this information. It allows them preparation time for future changes. I hope that was ok to bring up these points. I see this is a sincerely educational blog. At first, i have to admit, it looked like the bloody pictures and peoples comments about satisfying voracious appetites for so many varied types of fleshes as per Richard .. was a brag and affront to challenge those horrified by all the deaths needed to maintain one human.
    But this is your lives and how it actually is. Far-removed from the sustainable vegan direction that is sweeping earth. Your land may not be capable of growing quality vegetation. I’ll have to study that.

    Regarding your blogs mention above ..of population regeneration around a few percent increase. Though adequate for well populated species ..that rate must be tripled or more, to fight the worldwide forces of extinction. Overall, species and numbers are in woeful decline. Entire species of fishes that were once the dominant food source for many people a few years back, get nearly wiped out …and another species to exploit comes on the scene. This has occured several times in recent years. There has been pollock .. whitefish .. tilapia .. mahi mahi and now another fish, once considered a trash species, looks like the next canidate to exploit the existence out of.. All nations must tighten their belt. Whale populations are a worldwide phenomena and their last ‘stands’ for life such as your area, are becoming protected refuges for good reason.
    >>> What percentage of meat is needed in a proper diet in arctic territories .. That’s a good thing to look at. Cutting back doesn’t mean loss of life’s luxuries .. and it typically extends longevity and health. That’s why i asked earlier what is the avg lifespan there.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read & think about this, rather than just deciding that people who think and live differently than you do are evil or disgusting. To judge by some of the comments I’m not approving, the ability to do that is not that common. Kind of sad.

      We know we are very lucky to have such clean oceans here. It isn’t the case in some of the Eastern Arctic, where quite high levels of contamination have been measured in marine mammals. That is one reason why everyone here is so worried about off-shore oil exploration off Alaska. There is no way to clean up spills in ice-infested waters. On land, it can be cleaned up (they’ve done it at Prudhoe a number of times). Not that any oil spill is a good one or acceptable, but it is manageable on land, whereas in the ocean it isn’t. Off-shore exploration puts all the risk to food security on a small group of people who are still heavily dependent on hunting for subsistence. Land animals up here don’t seem to be bothered by pipelines once they have a chance to get used to them, caribou herds in the oil patch area haven’t vanished (all caribou seem to expand and crash, and caribou biologists don’t know why in most cases), so the huge drive to keep drilling out of ANWR, despite promises to the Native people of the North Slope that they could get benefit of oil in that area (for which they relinquished rights to much land) has just resulted in pushing the exploration off-shore where the risk to the environment is much higher. I’m not sure how people can claim to be an environmentalist or conservation minded and make that trade-off.

      We are also lucky that there has been a commercial fishing moratorium put in place for the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. There are commercially viable species up here (I just saw a Facebook post of a big king crab caught in a subsistence fishery off the Northwest Coast of Alaska), so the moratorium has undoubtedly kept the entanglements & stuff way down, and the ice has kept ship strikes to a minimum. They seem to be huge killers of whales elsewhere.

      Unfortunately, many of the species that are common up here are, if not ice-obligate (having to have sea ice to survive) at least ice-preferring. They can’t make it in water that is too warm. Bowheads have so much blubber when they are healthy that whalers have to cut a “window” through it after the whale is caught to let the body heat and the heat generated by on-going digestion out, or the whale would spoil even in sea water at 28-29 F or on ice at sub-freezing temperatures. One of the biologists here figured out that without an active circulatory system moving body heat to the flippers & tails to disperse it, a whale’s internal temperature would climb for 24 hours after death even in sub-freezing temperatures because they are so well insulated. The seals and walrus aren’t quite that well insulated, but on a warm day you can see they are hot even lying on ice. What that means is that, even now, the Arctic can’t be a reservoir to repopulate the rest of the world, because the animals couldn’t take the heat. But if we can keep the place clean and the oceans don’t get too warm absorbing atmospheric heat, maybe the animals will be OK here. A subsistence hunt isn’t going to be what takes them out if they go. It’s going to be things done and decisions made by people far from the Arctic.

      The whale hunt here is highly regulated. The NSB Department of Wildlife Management also collects catch data on most other species which are used in subsistence, and if there seemed to be issues with a population I don’t doubt the catch would be limited or hunting stopped for a few years to allow recovery. Hunters (on the North Slope or in any hunting culture) are quite aware of these things (for one thing, if a population is declining, it’s harder to find that kind of animal) and people have traditionally made adjustments. Taking mothers with calves is avoided if at all possible, egg collectors leave some behind, etc. Imposing regulations on things from far away in an authoritarian way is more likely to provoke some folks to violate the regulation as a statement, especially if it seems to be based on faulty data like the whale moratorium was.

      People on the North Slope and elsewhere in rural Alaska still practice a subsistence way of life. Flush toilets and running water haven’t made it to every village yet, and in some cases “running water” means you can go get water from a tap in the village washeteria. Real unemployment is very high (there may only be a few jobs other than teacher in a village, and most folks don’t have a teaching certificate) and there is no other choice except to move somewhere else. I’m going to do another post where I go to the grocery store & gas station (gas in now $6.20/gallon in Barrow & worse in the villages). Many families would experience real hunger without subsistence food. Food stamps can’t fix it; they don’t seem to be adjusted for cost of living. No marine mammal meat taken in US waters can be sold, in a store or elsewhere. No meat or fish taken in a subsistence hunt in Alaska can be sold. There is no whale, no seal, no caribou, no walrus available in stores here. There is a small market for reindeer (tame caribou brought from Europe originally–they are the same species but are herded & owned) meat for sausages & stew, and there is a little bit of it in one of the local stores, but no one buys it. Some other Arctic nations do allow country food to be sold under certain circumstances.

      As far as vegetables, some people do grow a few at cabins farther south or indoors, but as far as agriculture that could actually feed people, it would have to be indoor hydroponic. The average outdoor growing season (AKA frost-free days) for Barrow is, wait for it, 11 days. Not going to cut it even for radishes or baby lettuce. And then there is the rest of the year… Now I garden, (even have a blog) but it is native plants.

    2. “sustainable vegan direction that is sweeping earth”

      There is absolutely nothing “sustainable” about veganism.
      Agriculture is far more harmful to the environment than subsistence hunting. One need only look at the destruction of the rain forest for Agriculture to understand that.
      Moreover, there isn’t enough arable land in the world to sustain a vegi-only diet. Any attempt to do so would be heavily reliant on genetic engineering, international shipping (requires lots of Heavy Oil) to disperse rare vegetables, and the industrial manufacturing of supplements.

  3. I don’t think whale meat appears as a commercial product anywhere in Alaska. It is all gifted or sold. In a few areas, only caribou on the North Slope can be sold in a store or restaurant (This may have changed). No moose, Dall sheep, bear, wild water fowl, grouse, etc. are found in stores for sale. I used to see seal oil for sale in Bethel and it is traded among Alaska Native legally. Are laws on sales of wild caught animals of any kind are very strict. Even road kills of moose must be retained y the troopers and given to charities. Our game populations are in very good shape. All meat must be recovered at the risks of very high fines. Unlike Europe where wild game is a commercial product taken from private lands, Alaska is largely public or Alaska Native land. Wild meat is not a luxury!!!!! The hunt is 99.9% work. e have five different species of white fish, Burbot /cod, trout, 5 varieties of salmon, Pike, Black Fish, Needle Fish, Tom Cods, Char, Candle Fish, Smelt and Lampreys all found, capture and eaten from fresh waters. Of these, the King Salmon is the one that is scarce some years. Is capture and use is strictly monitored. Its recent decline has more to due to periodical shifts of ocean currents, As to how well we eat, one must remember that milk is 8 or 9 dollars a gallon in western Alaskan villages, gasoline or diesel is 8 to 9 dollars a gallon as well. Eating well in a world where it can easily drop down to -30 degrees F, is critical. Weeks of windy days of -20 degrees + are common on the North and West coasts of Alaska and days of -60 F are common in our great interior. Ice for water or water must be hauled still in many place, trapping is one meager source for cash; children, still play outside, people still travel, and life goes on. Without wild foods people in the villages would starve. We depend on wood cut from the Boreal forest or gathered as drift wood off of beaches to heat our homes. April thru the middle of October are the months hen food is gathered. It is frozen, salted, dried, smoked, preserved in seal oil, (poked) fermented or canned- all for winter survival. Food stamps a joke. Families without a hunter must rely on their kin for their very survival. The word “tradition” is done to death at times. As a kasseq/ whiteman in this world, I had no choice but to learn to hunt and how to care for my family from other successful hunters. My wife would complain bitterly if we had to depend on others for our food. My own kin had the same attitude. We were always poor but never hungry!!!!

  4. In the early 1990’s, I read a book by an investigative journalist who lived with the Inupiat and went whaling with them. His book was accessible for lay readers. He also talked about oil rights. I have looked and looked for this book as I’d like for my husband to read it. Would you happen to know the title/author? Thanks much.

    1. I”m not sure. Two books that sound sort of like that that I can think of are Bill Hess’s The Gift of the Whale and Charles Wolforth’s The Whale and the Supercomputer but the dates don’t seem right. Do you remember if this person was in Barrow or where?

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