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Alaska whaling boats prepare for new season

Christopher EvensenArctic Sounder
Tony Hopfinger photo

Back during the April bowhead season, Barrow whaling captain Crawford Patkotak and his crew were fortunate enough to land a whale for their community. Of the 35 registered whaling boats and 24 allowed strikes, Barrow hunters struck seven whales and landed five. As the fall opening nears, the Patkotak crew, along with many others, will prepare their boats and equipment in an effort toward the 13 remaining allotted strikes.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) plans to evaluate the number of bowhead whales that it will allow Alaska Eskimos to harvest during their annual hunts. The current quota permits up to 75 bowhead whale strikes per harvest, which is estimated to be less than 1 percent of the entire population of bowhead whales in the Western Arctic.

Whaling is an integral aspect of Arctic coastal communities.

"I have been hunting bowheads, along with my brother and father for as long as I can remember," said co-captain Josiah Patkotak.

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The first captain of this hunting crew, established in 1972, was Josiah Patkotak’s grandfather, who recently passed down the captainship to his son. Unlike many Alaska Native traditions, which are in decline, Patkotak said whaling is different.

"The hunters are mainly young guys," he said, adding that five of the crew of Crawford's boat are less than 25 years of age.

Scientists will conduct an environmental review of the bowhead harvest quota allocated to 11 Arctic Alaska communities. The results of the study will provide an Environmental Impact Statement and resultant harvest guidelines for the NMFS for the next four years, updating the federal subsistence guidelines between 2013 and 2017. The results of the study will not be released until April, after which the public will be invited to comment on the findings.

Seasoned whalers, more new issues

Of the great many safety concerns and hunting strategies whalers face while out on the water, changes in sea ice conditions and potential impacts from off-shore oil development are new factors that cannot be overlooked.

"I personally have noticed little, if any, change in the sea ice during my time, but I've heard stories of the ice being thick enough to harvest the largest bowheads as late as June 14," Patkotak said. "Nowadays, most hunters don’t go after the biggest whales, but pick smaller ones, small enough for the ice to support. Ice matters for whale size."

That means less whale is available per landing and less whale for the community to subsist on.

Concerning oil development Patkotak said he hopes Native ways will be respected.

"I hope that oil companies will communicate with the community and think rationally and make rules that benefit the people of Barrow," he said. "I also hope that they will abide by the rules that are established if drilling production begins. Whaling is our identity."

NOAA said in its announcement that the agency's goal is to both accommodate the federal trust responsibilities and to recognize the cultural and subsistence needs of Alaska Natives as much as possible. It noted that for over 2,000 years, Eskimos have hunted bowhead whales as they migrate along the coastline of Alaska in the spring and fall. The release also acknowledged that Native subsistence hunters from 11 northern Alaskan communities take less than 1 percent of this stock of bowhead whales per year.

Preparation and opportunity

The fall whaling season begins Oct. 8.

Along with optimism for success comes concern for the safety of family and friends out hunting and the responsibility of providing a winter's subsistence supply of whale for all.

Despite poor ice conditions, the potential impact of oil development on the fishery and the potential regulatory changes to the size of their quota, Josiah Patkotak said preparation for this opening is underway.

He asks that people keep them in their thoughts and prayers for safety and for a successful harvest to feed the entire community.

But for many of the young whalers, the excitement is already evident.

"Whaling for us is a way of life, it is what we want to do," he said. "It is in our blood and has meant survival since time immemorial. Besides, muktuk tastes so good!"

This article originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.