On Top of the World

by D.J. Schubert

It took three tries for the pilot to land in Barrow, Alaska in the heavy fog. To the native Iñupiat, Barrow is known as Ukpeaġvik (or Utqiaġvik), which means “place to hunt snowy owls.” I came to the top of the world to learn about Iñupiat culture, bowhead whales, and to strengthen the bridge between the Animal Welfare Institute and native Alaskan whalers. AWI has long opposed commercial whaling, but its stance on aboriginal subsistence whaling is more nuanced, and takes into account aboriginal uses and needs, science, and cruelty concerns (see sidebar on page 17).

Nearly 4,700 people call Barrow and neighboring Browerville home. In addition to the native Iñupiats, there is a diversity of ethnicities including Asian-, Mexican- and African-Americans, and a contingent of Hawaiians. The city contains an eclectic mix of houses (many painted in bright colors), two schools, several restaurants, a college, a police station, office buildings, a cultural center, three hotels, four taxi companies, convenience stores, a modern grocery/department store, and—surprisingly—a tanning salon.

The subsistence lifestyle of many of the residents, however, is obvious: The skeletons of whaling boats, caribou hides and skulls, and even baleen from past whale kills decorate many yards. With the odd assortment of snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, automobiles, and other odds and ends, the aesthetic—perhaps surprising to the average suburbanite—reflects a culture of survival in a climate and landscape foreign to most.

Shortly after my arrival, I headed to the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL) with Dr. Robert Suydam, a cetacean scientist with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (NSB-DWM). NARL—which reportedly was used to spy on Russia during the cold war era—has been converted into Ilisaģvik College and offices for the NSB-DWM. Our destination was the Arctic Research Facility (ARF). Historically, the ARF was used to conduct physiological studies on various Arctic wildlife species. Now, the ARF was bustling with activity as the home away from home for more than a dozen young people who had come to Barrow to participate in the bowhead whale count that occurs approximately every 10 years.

After donning insulated coveralls, “bunny” boots, and a heavy jacket, Dr. Suydam and I ventured by snowmobile from the ARF across the shore-fast and pack ice to the whale counting perches near the ice edge and the open water of the Arctic Ocean. The Arctic landscape was stunning in its stark beauty. Throughout the winter and early spring, storms force the massive sheets of pack ice to collide with the shore-fast ice, creating a haphazard assortment of giant slabs—most larger than an automobile—strewn across the ice, with many slabs painted in dazzling shades of blue.

The whale counting perches were constructed atop the slabs of ice, providing a perfect vantage point to observe migrating bowheads traversing the open water. From April through May, the whale counters would spend at least 10 hours at the perches each day, with two 4-hour shifts counting whales separated by a 2-hour break. Unless the weather was not conducive to observing whales, this was a 24-hour-a-day operation, facilitated by the midnight sun.

The perches were surrounded on three sides by large white tarps to cut exposure to Arctic winds. They were furnished with animal skins to provide insulation from the ice, and the standard tools for counting whales—i.e., binoculars, a theodolite (used to estimate horizontal and vertical distance) and data sheets. Counters would scan the water looking for the black backs of bowhead whales. Once spotted, various measurements and observations were noted on the data sheets as the animals traversed the open water. In between shifts, many of the counters stayed in a nearby warming tent. The tent, surrounded by an electric fence to ward off curious polar bears, was equipped with a stove, coffee, tea, blankets and snacks.

The fog prevented us from seeing whales that day, but there were several flocks of common eiders, a few spectacled eiders, and some glaucous-winged gulls observed traversing the open lead. The lack of whales was somewhat expected, as most of the juveniles and adults had already passed, though the last peak of the migrants—including mothers with calves—was expected soon. Only days earlier, the whale counters were busy tracking a near record number of migrating whales, along with the occasional polar bear transiting the pack ice.

Though the serenity of being on the pack ice was enticing, I headed back to Barrow in hopes of meeting with representatives of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) which, in collaboration with the US government, oversees and manages the bowhead whale hunt.

Many AEWC officials were at their whaling camps or had gone inland to hunt geese, but I was able to meet Arnold Brower, a past chairman of the AEWC, in his office at the Ukpeaġvik Iñupiat Corporation. He was initially hesitant to see me; however once I made clear my interest in working with the Iñupiat community to identify issues of mutual concern and areas where AWI and others could join forces with the AEWC to seek change, he welcomed me into his office for a wide-ranging discussion about bowhead whales, threats to the species and their habitat, and the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

We shared a common concern about the Alaskan's bowhead hunt being a political pawn in the battle over commercial whaling. We discussed the expansion of oil and gas development activities in the Arctic, an issue of considerable concern to the AEWC due to the potential for a massive oil spill in the midst of an ice field—which would be impossible to clean up. The anticipated increase in ship traffic and ocean noise inherent to the industry is already negatively affecting bowhead whales, and will only worsen over time. Similarly, the effects of climate change remain a persistent and urgent concern to the AEWC and Arctic residents due to the drastic impacts on their lifestyles, culture, and the wildlife they rely on for survival.

The next day, I awoke at 1:00 a.m. to a bright sunlit sky, providing hope that today I would see a bowhead whale. I returned to the ARF and eventually to the perches where ice conditions were changing rapidly as the sun hastened the spring melt.

Yet, despite blue skies and calm seas, the whales continued to elude me. Based on radio transmissions overheard at the ARF, however, the whales did not elude three whaling crews. While I felt sadness for the whales—for the whaling crews, their families, and the native residents of Barrow this was tradition, a part of their subsistence culture.

Though I wasn’t eager to observe the flensing process, I had hoped to get to the ice edge to observe and document the community camaraderie that is integral to Iñupiat tradition. It is an Iñupiat custom when a whale is struck for the villagers to head to the ice edge to help hoist the multiton animal onto land and assist with flensing the carcass. In exchange, they are given blubber and meat for their personal use while the whaling captain and crew members retain the rest. Within days of the hunt, by custom, the whaling captain will open his home for all to enjoy a meal of muktuk (blubber), whale meat, and bread. The remaining meat and blubber may be smoked, dried, salted, or stored in underground ice freezers for future use though, by law, the meat and blubber cannot be sold. (Only native handicrafts made from the whale’s baleen or other parts can be sold.)

Unfortunately, given the deteriorating ice conditions, transport problems, and time constraints, the difficulty in getting me to the ice edge could not be overcome. As I departed Barrow, I imagined how the stark, ice-covered landscape would change in the next few weeks as the ice melted. How has climate change already altered the Arctic ecosystem? How will it continue to affect the region, its wildlife, the people and their culture? Would the bowhead whales survive? Will the Iñupiat way of life persist or will the environmental change force them to adapt? And, despite the cultural divide, can the commonalities we share be used to compel change to protect the Arctic environment for whales and humans alike? Only time will tell.

ASW: Political Pawn in the Pack Ice
Aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) countries that are members of the IWC include the US, Russia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Denmark (representing Greenland). The Alaskan Iñupiat bowhead hunt, involving eleven villages, is the best-managed ASW hunt, yet it also has been used by other countries engaged in political shenanigans.

The controversy is linked to Japan’s efforts to use the bowhead quota (approved by the IWC and shared by the native whalers of the US and Russia) as leverage to force the US to support Japan's desire to engage in coastal, commercial whaling. In 2002, this scheme succeeded in forcing the US to adopt a whale conservation strategy based largely on protecting the bowhead quota. Though once a reliable voice for whale protection, the influence of the US within the IWC has been weakened by its overarching concern for the bowhead quota. Its actions within the IWC are often subject to an assessment of how its decisions will affect the bowhead quota, which comes up for renewal every five years (including next year).

As a result, at recent IWC meetings the US supported Greenland's controversial ASW whaling program and its expansion to include humpback whales. This was done (despite full knowledge of deficiencies in Greenland's ASW operation) to curry favor with Japan, Denmark, and their allies and secure a future bowhead quota.

AWI continues to question the number of whales the Iñupiat require to meet their subsistence, nutritional and cultural needs, and strongly encourages efforts to reduce the cruelty inherent to the hunt. Nevertheless, using the bowhead quota for political purposes must end.

D.J. Schubert is a wildlife biologist with AWI. He regularly represents AWI internationally at meetings pertaining to wildlife conservation, such as conferences of the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and annual meetings of the IWC.