Federal agency proposes keeping state bowhead whale hunt at current levels

Posted: Tuesday, February 05, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Villages along Alaska's western coastline where residents hunt bowhead whales would see no reduction in their subsistence hunt quota under a plan preferred by a federal agency.

Mike Galginaitis / Village Of Nuiqsut Via The Associated Press
Mike Galginaitis / Village Of Nuiqsut Via The Associated Press

The option preferred by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration essentially keeps in place the status quo.

If approved, it would allow a total of 255 bowhead whales to be harvested from 2008 through 2012, and it would set a maximum yearly strike quota of 67, with up to 15 unused strikes allowable carry-over to the next year, said Steve Davis, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage, who worked on the plan. The fisheries service is a division of NOAA.

Last year, Alaska Natives harvested 42 bowhead whales.

"It is meeting their subsistence needs and they don't need any more than what they are getting, and the population is increasing," Davis said Monday, in summing up the option preferred by NOAA, the International Whaling Commission and the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. "We knew what the Alaska Natives wanted and the agency saw no reason not to support that."

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday.

The subsistence catch limits have been in effect since 1977.

Bowheads, blue-black baleen whales with massive heads and layers of blubber up to 2 feet thick, live only in the Arctic and are harvested by Alaska Natives living along the coasts of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

The Western Arctic bowheads migrate from wintering grounds in the northern Bering Sea, through the Chukchi Sea in the spring and to the Beaufort Sea, where they spend summers. In the fall, they return to the Bering Sea to spend the winter.

While numbers are increasing, bowhead whales remain listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. The Western Arctic stock is estimated at 10,545 - near the bottom range of an estimated 10,400 to 23,000 whales before commercial Yankee whalers brought the species to the brink of extinction. They have been protected since 1946.

Annual assessments of bowheads show a 3 percent growth rate a year. There is no sign that the growth rate is slowing, the NOAA report says.

"We didn't want to have a harvest less than the needs of the community or a higher number than is needed," said Brad Smith, a NMFS biologist in Anchorage.

Russia also allows villages along the Chukotka Peninsula to subsistence hunt for bowheads. Agencies and organizations here are working effectively with their counterparts across the Bering Sea, Davis said.

"These whales migrate all over the Arctic," he said. "It looks like the bowhead whale population is doing well and can support this kind of activity."

The public comment period ends March 3. A final decision is expected soon after.

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