Alaska's congressional delegation has sent a warning shot at the international body that sets whaling harvests: Ignore Eskimo bowhead whalers and the U.S. will set its own harvest limits.
The three-member delegation said Tuesday they've introduced companion bills in both houses establishing the U.S. Commerce Secretary's authority to set subsistence catch limits if the International Whaling Commission does not.
Whalers applauded the move because the fractious commission is composed of 89 member countries split over whaling, which means the body often has a difficult time finding the three-quarters support needed to approve limits. The commission has always found enough votes to set that limit, but not without a struggle.
"The bills send an important message to the members of the IWC," said Johnny Aiken, executive director of the Barrow-based Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, in a media statement. "It puts them on notice that the United States will ensure our subsistence hunting continues if the IWC doesn't act on our quota request."
This summer, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is looking to renew the same quota it's had for 15 years. The international whaling body will meet in Panama in early July, and the bowhead quota is one of several controversial topics on the agenda.
The U.S., one of four member countries engaged in aboriginal subsistence whaling, wants to renew the quota for six years this time, rather than five as in the past. That's because the commission plans to hold such meetings once every two years in the future, said Douglas DeMaster, deputy commissioner to the 11-member U.S. delegation.
Complicated whale math
What has the quota been? Complicated.
Alaska's annual harvest has been set at up to 67 annual strikes, or penetrations with a whaling weapon. However, up to 15 unused strikes from the previous year could be added to that annual limit. But that's only if the number of whales taken over five years did not exceed 280, DeMaster said.
Now that a six-year block quota is being sought, whalers will request 336 total whales, he said. That's a proportional increase from the five-year block quota. The U.S. is also requesting the same number of annual strikes, with the same rollover of unused strikes.
Under the new bills, the U.S. Department of Commerce secretary, currently John Bryson, could issue aboriginal subsistence whaling permits under the federal Whaling Convention Act.
"We are not going to let IWC politics result in our Alaska communities being denied access to their traditional food source," said Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska.
The bills only allow the U.S. to circumvent the whaling commission if there's no other choice. The commerce secretary would need to first pursue harvest limits at the whaling commission. If the IWC did not act, harvest limits set by the commerce secretary would be based on the latest review of the bowhead stock by the international body's scientific committee, said a joint press release issued by the delegation.
The 1946 treaty that led to the creation of the international body -- the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling -- permits subsistence whale hunting in the U.S. if the IWC fails to set a harvest limit. The new bills will ensure the U.S. has the power, if needed, to establish harvest limits for the first time, said Julie Hasquet, spokeswoman for Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
Eskimo whalers worry every time their quota is up for renewal. Their fears are well-founded, said DeMaster.
In 2002, the commission needed a special fall meeting to approve the quota after failing to do so at the regular meeting. In 2007, DeMaster said Alaska's once-mighty, now-deceased Sen. Ted Stevens had to step in to sway votes toward the Eskimo whalers.
Efforts in the last four years to find agreement between the member countries, including last summer during a meeting in the United Kingdom, did not work, said DeMaster.
"That's tells you something," he said.
A bountiful harvest for Alaska's Eskimo whalers this year
Scientists say Alaska's bowhead stock has steadily grown over the years, with less than 1 percent of the stock allowed to be taken by Alaska whalers. North Slope Borough biologists peg bowhead numbers at more than 13,000 whales.
The state's Inupiat whalers had a bountiful spring this year, with 14 crews in several villages landing at least 33 whales. That comes close to the 38 whales landed in all of of 2011, a year that saw only 20 whales landed in the spring and 18 landed in the fall.
The new legislation would also ensure that U.S.-set harvest limits continue to be set low enough to ensure the whaling population is sustainable, the delegation's statement said.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said: "There can be no compromise on meeting the nutritional needs of the Inupiaq residents of the North Slope and if the IWC is unable to extend the subsistence catch limits, the U.S. government must be prepared to do so."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said: "This legislation is needed to ensure that the remote Alaska communities that depend on bowhead whales for food do not experience any interruption of their subsistence hunts due to government inaction."
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com