Alaska village wants panel to approve whale hunt

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2004

ANCHORAGE - A village on Alaska's Arctic Coast wants a share of the whaling harvest.

Point Lay, a community of 260 at the edge of the Chukchi Sea, has asked the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission for permission to take one bowhead whale every spring. It would be the first time villagers landed a whale in nearly 70 years, according to local elders.

At their annual meeting this week in Barrow, Eskimo whaling captains on the commission will decide whether to share their limited catch of bowhead whales with Point Lay.

Although the village receives gifts of muktuk and meat from friends and relatives in other whaling communities, a quota of its own would be a boon to Point Lay, Mayor Julius Rexford said. Even if the hunt weren't successful every year, it would reactivate an age-old tradition.

"We're praying and hoping the commission accepts our request," Rexford told the Anchorage Daily News.

Eskimos in skin boats have hunted bowheads for thousands of years in the Bering and Chukchi seas. The whales grow to 60 feet long and more than 100 tons and were also targeted by commercial whalers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But the traditional harvest slammed to a halt in 1977 when the International Whaling Commission, fearing that bowheads were on the verge of extinction, banned the subsistence hunt.

Whaling communities were outraged. Rather than defy the ban as some counseled, however, the villages formed the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission and encouraged federal agencies to expand their bowhead studies.

A year later, and armed with new research that documented more bowheads than previously thought, whalers won back their subsistence hunt.

When whaling resumed in 1978, traditional whaling communities were allowed to kill 18 bowheads a year. As the whale population has rebounded, the Alaska harvest has grown to 51, split among 10 Alaska communities from St. Lawrence Island to the Canada border.

But for reasons of location, size and history, Point Lay is not among them.

The community originally formed on a long barrier island, which provided a reliable harvest of the smaller, white beluga whales. But Point Lay sits on an indented stretch of coastline that puts it farther from the path of migrating bowheads than other whaling villages, according to the Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs.

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