Governor's plan to drill off ANWR coast draws Native fire

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2004

Alaska Native whalers are angry about Gov. Frank Murkowski's plan to hold oil and gas leases in state waters of the Beaufort Sea now reserved for aboriginal bowhead whale hunts.

More than 266,000 acres of whaling waters off the coast of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be open for exploration under Murkowski's proposal.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission - which represents aboriginal whaling captains along the North Slope coastal communities - wants Murkowski to reconsider his plans.

Since offshore oil and gas exploration began on the North Slope, state and federal officials have respected subsistence hunting "deferral areas" near Barrow and Kaktovik, the group said.

Inupiat Eskimos hunt bowhead whales during their spring and fall migration through the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. The whaling commission regulates bowhead quotas and has jealously guarded the Inupiat right to hunt the whales.

"They know this is very critical and something very sensitive to our whaling community up here," said Maggie Ahmaogak, executive director of the commission.

"Everything that is passed on from generation to generation is based on this great animal," Ahmaogak said.

State waters extend three miles from the coast of the North Slope and state oil and gas officials have set aside miles of its waters for whaling.

The state set aside its waters from Point Barrow east to Tangent Point for Barrow whalers. State waters from Barter Island east to the Canadian border have been reserved for Kaktovik hunters.

Eskimo whalers are concerned that increased noise and marine traffic will drive bowheads away from their normal migration patterns, causing hunters to venture further out to sea.

In addition, they raise environmental concerns about major oil spills in the open ocean and in broken ice conditions.

Murkowski went to Washington, D.C. to announce his plan to develop in sensitive state waters off the coast of ANWR and NPR-A.

He expressed frustration with the protracted fight in Congress over opening ANWR to oil exploration and leveled criticism of environmentalists who fought him both while in the U.S. Senate and as governor.

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