By Kathleen Knox/Andrew F. Tully
For thousands of years, the native peoples of Alaska and northeast Russia have hunted whales as a source of food. These days, the methods may be more modern, but the hunting of gray and bowhead whales still plays a dominant role in these peoples' cultural identity. But now, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has decided to restrict aboriginal whaling. For the first time in its history, the IWC has voted to strike down the annual quota on bowhead whales, which has allowed the Yupik and Inupiat peoples to kill up to 68 bowheads a year for their own consumption.
Prague, 13 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- George Noongwook first went whale hunting with his uncles some 40 years ago. Noongwook, an Eskimo from St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, says he's yet to kill a whale himself. As of next year, he might not get another chance.
That's because the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has decided to restrict aboriginal whaling rights. Delegates at the IWC's annual meeting in late May did agree to extend aboriginal hunting quotas for gray whales beyond the end of this year, but not the one for bowhead whales, the main catch for native Alaskan hunters.
It's the first time the IWC has voted against a quota for indigenous peoples since it began ruling on the issue in the early 1970s. Since the IWC rules do allow subsistence whaling for native hunters, the commission appears to be sailing into uncharted legal waters, so it's not completely clear what will happen next. But Noongwook says if the bowhead whale hunt is banned, it will have a dramatic impact on his community.
"Bowhead whaling has been the central focus of our lives, our traditions, values, sharing, that type of thing. If it were to be completely banned, it would be the end of the life, as we know it, as [a] people. It would be really devastating for the people, especially in the whaling community."
Whaling quotas are allocated according to whale stock, not by country. Alaska's Yupik and Inupiat share the quotas with the Makah Indians of Washington state and whaling communities just across the Bering Sea in Chukotka, Russia's northeast.
Lyudmila Ayngana is president of the Yupik Association of Chukotka, the main Eskimo association in Russia. From her home in Provideniya, she says it's "exasperating" when the fate of native peoples is decided in this way. "It was a traditional industry by the native peoples. It only just started being resumed in Russia, and they've done away with this quota, and of course we sympathize with the Alaskan Eskimos, who have nothing left."
Ayngana says people rely on whale meat and blubber for food and occasionally on whale oil for light, and that hunting is necessary to preserve the local culture. "A whale gives us meat, but in the villages where there are 300 or 400 people, one gray whale is not enough. You need two [whales] to satisfy people's needs. This is especially true for Chukotka because for many years other foods are almost unavailable or very expensive."
The new restriction won't affect the livelihood of Chukotka native hunters too much -- they'll lose the right to kill one bowhead a year but will continue to be able to hunt some 135 gray whales.
Still, it's not so long since traditional hunting was outlawed during Soviet times, when state-run catcher boats would kill the whales and tow them to the villages. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ships stopped operating, and the native people of Chukotka -- left without food -- began to hunt again, often risking their lives in the process. Shortly after, they were allocated an official whaling quota.
Igor Krupnik was at the forefront of the push to renew native whaling in Russia. He's now an expert at Washington's Smithsonian Institute. When RFE/RL caught up with him, he stressed he was speaking as an individual scientist and not in any official capacity. He commented on the impact of the IWC's vote by saying, "They couldn't hunt for decades under the Soviet regime, and then they finally resumed the hunting, which was done in close cooperation with the native whalers and their organizations in Alaska. [The] Chukotka native whalers could resume their operations, and now there is another blow that some international regime has imposed that again blocked their ways of whaling. So [it] could be a tremendous blow to their self-esteem and their efforts to resume their traditional ways of hunting."
He says nutrition is just one of the reasons whaling is so important to communities on both sides. Whaling is the "backbone" of their cultural activities and has been for some 2,000 years. "In Alaska in spring, when the whales start moving north, hunters from several communities just line along the shore anticipating the whaling hunt. I've been in the villages, and I've seen this kind of excitement, this kind of energy of the entire community in preparation for the whaling. It's like taking away from people the most important part of their annual life -- socially, emotionally, as well as economically."
Some delegates at the IWC meeting complained that aboriginal people had been the victim of a wider political game. Japan, which spearheaded the vote, had earlier lost its attempt to overturn the IWC's ban on commercial whaling, and the bowhead vote was seen by many as "payback."
Scott Smullen is deputy director of public and constituent affairs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency that represented the U.S. at the IWC meeting. He says it's clear there are no scientific arguments to justify the bowhead quota restriction. "The stock of bowhead whales that they're hunting from is healthy. It's over 13,000 strong. It's been growing at 3.3 percent a year, and the commission's own scientific body -- the scientific committee within the commission -- has said that it's a healthy stock, and it can easily withstand this kind of hunt. So it's not a matter of science. It's definitely, in this case, a matter of politics."
But Smullen says he's hopeful the problem can be resolved before the current quota expires at the end of the year. "Come January, we had expected to have another five-year block quota, so it's up to us as the U.S. government and working with the Russian government and also the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission to fix the situation. There seems to be four or five options, and we're not speculating on what those are. We're not going to box ourselves in, so to speak. But we're confident that we can fix the situation before the end of the year."
If that proves successful, it will ease one of Noongwook's main worries -- whether his children will be able to follow in his footsteps. "The only thing I can do," he says, "is to show them how to do it and maybe they can carry on the tradition."