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Federal agency proposes limits for Eskimo bowhead whalers

Alex DeMarban

How many bowhead whales should Alaska Natives harvest each year?

That's the question proposed by a draft Environmental Impact Statement released Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It looks at the impact of the annual spring and fall hunts for the giant whale that migrates past Alaska's northern coasts.

The comment period on the statement, which proposes catch limits for hunters, opened Friday, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Alaska Native subsistence hunters have hunted the bowhead whale for hundreds of years, said a written statement from the agency. Today, 11 communities take fewer than 1 percent of the Western Arctic subsistence stock each year, an amount that has allowed the population to continue growing. At least 33 whales were taken this spring, a high number made possible in part by favorable hunting conditions. A fall hunt is also planned before the sea ice returns. 

The International Whaling Commission will meet in July to consider renewing the Eskimo whalers’ quota. They're likely to set the same annual quota hunters have followed for the last 15 years.

Under the Whaling Convention Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service grants a catch limit to the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission based in Barrow. The Eskimo whaling commission manages the hunts and divides the quota among 11 communities

The agency laid out several alternatives in the draft, including no more hunting. Its preferred alternative (labeled 3B) would allow a maximum annual harvest of 82 bowheads.

The quota would extend from 2013 to 2018, according to the agency's preferred alternative. No more than 306 bowheads would be taken by Alaska whalers during that six-year period. That level of take is thought to be "negligible" based on the animal's current population and growth rates, the draft statement says.     

Public comments on the statement end Aug. 15.

Click here for the draft and other information about the bowhead. To comment electronically, click here.