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In remote corners of Alaska, community well-being tied to health of whales

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder
Photo courtesy: Goldie Crisci

Each year in July, the village of Point Lay gathers for the annual beluga whale hunt - a feat that provides food for the village of 250 as well as for family members and friends in surrounding communities.

And while this year Point Lay got just 14 whales - a small showing compared to the 40 or 50 whales usually bagged - residents can be confident the whale meat and muktuk is in the pink.

Since the '90s, scientists have gathered with the villagers at the harvest to collect blood samples from the town's whales as well as from whales that managed to avoid the hunt. Villagers, including students, also helped biologists tag a number of whales not harvested, in order to track their path for the rest of the year. The satellite trackers tell researchers and biologists where the whales are going for the 11 months when they're not in the vicinity of Point Lay and therefore what contaminants they might be exposed to.

Tissue samples are taken postmortem to check on the whales' overall health --a health factor for the Alaskans who eat them. In a time of climate change and oil and gas exploration, wildlife of all kinds are at risk for contamination and disease.

Samples from the harvested whales are taken south to the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn., where researchers study the overall health of the behemoths through a myriad of rigorous tests, said Dr. Tracy Romano, the executive vice president of research and zoological operations at the Mystic Aquarium.

"The community of Point Lay has been helping us all these years and a way for us to give back ... was through educational programs," Romano said from Mystic. Romano and Department of Wildlife Management biologist Robert Suydam of Barrow have been involved with Point Lay belugas for two decades. They're hoping, through educational exchanges, to pass the torch to the next generation.

For the last four years, students from Point Lay have made the long trek - six separate plane rides to be exact - to Mystic to help researchers and scientists poke, prod, dissect and study samples from their own Point Lay belugas. All in the name of continuing education and fostering a healthy relationship between the scientific and cultural aspects of life in the Arctic.

And while the young residents of the small, Arctic village are involved in the hunting and processing of the whales, scientists wanted them to see first-hand how beluga health is assessed. This year, six students from Point Lay traveled south to Mystic. The exchange program is funded by the North Slope Borough Mayor's Office and it gives selected students the opportunity to travel to the aquarium and take note of exactly what researchers were doing with those samples collected during the summer harvest.

During the week-long visit, the students had a chance to interact with animals and trainers, learn how the animals are taken care of, and learn what it takes to assess health, Romano said. They also learned how to identify cells under a microscope and about beluga DNA and cloning.

"The overall goal is to inspire students to stay in school and continue with school," Romano said, so they can give back to their community by ensuring the sustainability of Alaska's belugas.

Students were able to mingle with trainers, veterinarians and scientists of all sorts to see if anything sparked an interest for a possible future career.

"This is a one-of-a-kind program," she said. "And it's been really successful. It's so wonderful to give back to (the) community by (giving) the students this opportunity."

Point Lay residents understand and appreciate the need for healthy whales, and so do the scientists who study them. Once the samples are taken and processed, researchers look at organs, muscle, fat, skin and blood to determine age, genetics, immune health, nutritional intake and disease exposure.

"They don't interfere with the harvest at all," said Point Lay resident Majorie Long, who also went along on the trip to Connecticut as a chaperone. "They are looking out for our people's health."

While down south, the students and chaperones took time away from the aquarium to visit with members of the local Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to exchange and discuss ideas and traditions. They also went to New York City where they visited Times Square, the Empire State Building and Ground Zero.

The thing that impressed Point Lay student Carolyn Long most was seeing all the creatures at the aquarium, including live belugas, she said.

"When we did an encounter with the belugas they were trained so when we touched them a certain way on its head or mouth, it would do a trick or make a weird noise," wrote Carolyn in a report about her trip. "Also, at the end of the encounter with them, they gave us a kiss on the cheek, which was the most awesome thing ever."

After the trip, fellow Point Lay student Timmothy Ferreira is considering a career in biology. He enjoyed the big city, he said, but missed "native food so badly that I didn't want to eat on some days," he wrote.

Shortly after arriving in Barrow, Ferreira and his friend found some "maktaq" and "Tuttu" soup and were glad to be home - though he admitted he will probably go back to the Lower 48 some day.

"We had a blast traveling to a new world," he wrote.  

This article was originally published in The Arctic Sounder and is reprinted here with permission.