Alaska Eskimo group seeks hike in whaling harvest quotas

Bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus), caught in an Inuit subsistence whale hunt in Igloolik, Nunavut in 2002.

ANCHORAGE — The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is seeking a significant increase in the number of bowhead whales that can be harvested annually by subsistence hunters from 11 remote villages in a changing Arctic environment.

The commission wants yearly strike limits raised to 100 from the current 67 strikes, commission Chairman John Hopson Jr. said in a statement to federal officials reviewing the catch limits. Also backing an increase is North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower Jr., who said in a statement that six of the whaling villages are in his region. He says they’ve largely depended on the bowhead to meet nutritional needs for thousands of years and can continue to do so if the animals are “shown the proper respect” and appropriately managed.

Their statements are among several received by Thursday’s deadline to submit public comments as part of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration review on catch limits for the Alaska Native communities. The review will cover a six-year period to begin in 2019.

The International Whaling Commission, which meets next in Brazil in 2018, has final say on quotas for subsistence harvesting of large whales.

Hopson and Brower could not be reached for comment on Friday.

In his statement, Hopson said the current strike limit was set in 1997, when the bowhead population was half of today’s estimate. He said the harvest yields between 41 and 42 landed whales each year, or up to 840 tons of “highly nutritious” food.

At the same time, hunters face increased challenges in a changing Arctic, where the shrinking sea and shore ice is the making migration patterns and access to the animals increasingly less predictable as well as leading to declining harvests of such ice-dependent subsistence animals as walrus, according to Hopson.

“As other resources become less accessible, the quantity of food provided by each bowhead whale represents an essential nutritional staple,” he wrote. “However, our access to the whale also has become increasingly less reliable.”

The Marine Mammal Commission also notes that the rate and impact of climate change need to be part of the equation, along with other factors including Arctic oil and gas activities, frequency of ship traffic and access to hunting areas and other subsistence resources.

Writing together, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group say the Alaska bowhead hunts are the “gold standard” of subsistence harvests, and the groups lauded hunters for expanding their use of penthrite grenades to reduce suffering in whales that are struck. They note concerns they want to see addressed in the review, including information on possible threats, such as climate change, oil and gas exploration and development, ocean noise and expected increases in ship traffic.

NOAA officials say the routine environmental impact statement being prepared will help the agency decide how Alaska’s share of catch limits will be allocated. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission decides how the quotas are actually split among the whaling communities.

A federal notice posted by NOAA fisheries in August lists four possible alternatives to be considered, including not allowing any quotas or maintaining the current strike limit of 67, but no more than 336 landed whales over a six-year period.

Public comments include calls for another alternative to be added to address an increase in whaling quotas.

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