Panel approves whaling quotas for Alaska Natives

Villagers allowed 260 bowheads in a five-year period

Posted: Wednesday, May 30, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The International Whaling Commission on Tuesday approved extending bowhead whaling quotas for Alaska Eskimos for subsistence hunting.

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The 76-nation commission voted by consensus to allow 280 bowhead whales to be taken over a five-year period, ending in 2012. A majority of that, 260 bowheads, is reserved for Alaska natives in 10 villages, with 20 bowheads granted to Russian residents, according to Scott Smullen, a spokesman for the U.S. delegation.

The five-year extension received the support of Japan, which is also trying to secure quotas for some of its coastal communities. Joji Morishita, the alternate IWC commissioner for Japan, asked that the same spirit of consensus be applied to other proposals, including the one from his country.

"Consistency is the keyword in this discussion," Morishita said.

Japan has long sought "community whaling" status, which would give it quotas under provisions similar to those that allow Alaska natives and other indigenous groups to hunt the mammals. Japan already kills more than 1,000 whales a year and sells the meat under a scientific research provision allowed by the IWC, which enacted a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986.

It was not immediately clear when the IWC may take up Japan's quota request.

Harvesting whales is considered a sacred accomplishment by many of an estimated 5,000 Alaska Eskimos who heavily depend on the meat for food. Ceremonial dances are held to bless the hunts and successful harvests prompt village celebrations where the meat is cut up and distributed.

Isaac Nukapigak, a whaling captain from the village of Nuiqsut, said he was surprised at the friendly support expressed by so many nations, which showed their consensus with applause.

Gone was the hostile politics of the 2002 meeting, when the quotas were briefly rejected before being restored in a special session, said Nukapigak, an alternate commissioner on the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. The panel represents 10 Alaska whaling communities.

After Tuesday's decision, Nukapigak said he can't imagine life without the bowhead whale, a coveted feature at Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities in the community of 400.

"It would be like taking part of my culture away," he said. "It's a tradition that has been passed on to us for thousands of years."

Still unresolved Tuesday was a proposal for semiautonomous Danish territory Greenland to increase its aboriginal quota of minke whales and add bowhead and humpback whales to its hunt for the first time. Its delegation said the current quota does not meet the needs of a growing population.

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