The villages of Kaktovik, near the Canadian border on the Beaufort Sea coast; Nuiqsut, in the Colville River Delta; Barrow, at the junction of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas; Wainwright, Pt. Lay, Pt. Hope, and Kivalina, on the Chukchi Sea coast; and Wales, Little Diomede, Gambell, and Savoonga in the Bering Straits Region, all participate in the annual subsistence hunt of bowhead whales. It is estimated that this hunt can account for as much as 900,000 pounds per year of highly nutritious meat and muktuq (skin and a thin layer of epidural fat), which is shared within the villages and with a large network of family and friends in the subsistence sharing network relied upon by many Alaskan Natives.
In addition to its importance as a source of nutrition, the communal nature of the bowhead whale subsistence hunt makes it a critical activity for passing important social and survival skills and cultural practices along to younger generations. Whaling Captains are highly respected for their traditional knowledge of ice, weather, and whale behavior, which is necessary to hunt successfully, for their generosity in supporting their whaling crews, and for their stewardship of the Native traditions of sharing and distributing meat and muktuq throughout the communities. Of all subsistence activities in these communities, the bowhead whale hunt represents one of the greatest concentrations of community-wide effort and time and provides ongoing reinforcement of the traditional social structure. With all of this, the bowhead whale subsistence hunt is a key part, not only of the cultural traditions of northern Alaska’s Native communities, but also of their modern cultural identity.
The BCBS bowhead whale stock migrates every spring from its wintering grounds in the northern Bering Sea, through openings in the ice along the Chukchi Sea coast of Alaska, past Pt. Barrow and west to summering grounds in the Canadian Beaufort Sea. During this spring migration, all of the AEWC villages, with the exception of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik hunt for whales from the edge of the spring shorefast ice. Crews hunting in the spring prefer to use traditional wood-frame umiaqs covered in walrus or ugaruk (bearded seal) skin, as they are lightweight and glide quietly in ice-choked spring waters. Beginning in late August, bowhead whales summering in the Canadian Beaufort Sea begin to migrate westward along the Alaskan Beaufort Sea coast before heading south through the Bering Strait and into the northern Bering Sea. During the fall migration, the villages of Nuiqsut and Kaktovik conduct their annual whale hunt, along with Barrow, which hunts during both the spring and fall migrations. The fall bowhead whale subsistence hunt is conducted in open water, primarily from motorized skiffs.
Since 1977, the bowhead whale subsistence hunt has been managed under a quota regime set up by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The IWC quota is implemented domestically by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and managed locally by the AEWC under a cooperative agreement with NOAA. The AEWC was formed by the whaling captains of the bowhead whale subsistence hunting villages in 1980 to represent the interests of the villages under the newly-imposed IWC quota regime.
As stated in its bylaws, the purposes of the AEWC are to “enhance the marine resource of the bowhead whale, including protection of its habitat; to protect Eskimo subsistence bowhead whaling; to protect and enhance Eskimo culture, traditions, and activities associated with bowhead whales and bowhead whaling; and to undertake research and educational activities related to bowhead whales.” In keeping with these purposes, along with managing the subsistence hunt, the AEWC works with its whaling captains on measures to improve the efficiency of the hunt and on a program to upgrade the traditional weapons used by the hunters. The AEWC and its whaling captains also cooperate with wildlife scientists at the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management on research into bowhead whale biology and genetics.
Also in keeping with its purposes, since 1986, the AEWC has worked to develop procedures for mitigating adverse impacts to bowhead whales, their habitat, and bowhead whale subsistence hunting from offshore oil and gas development. This work is undertaken through the AEWC’s Open Water Season Conflict Avoidance Agreement (CAA) Process, an annual series of communications and meetings between whaling captains and offshore oil and gas operators, focused on developing measures to manage planned offshore operations so as to minimize environmental impacts and impacts to hunting opportunities.
AEWC has continued to adapt to the changing environment in Alaska and throughout the world—from navigating the political arena of the international whaling community, to development of the Open Water Season Conflict Avoidance Agreement (CAA) to safeguard the bowhead whale habitat—acting as advocates for the villages that rely on the bowhead whale for their survival.
Alaska Natives of the high Arctic (Iñupiat) and Bering Straits Region (Siberian Yupik) have relied on bowhead whales, from the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas (BCBS) stock of bowhead whales, as a primary food source for the past 2,000 years. Today, bowhead whales remain a key nutritional resource for the 11 bowhead whale subsistence hunting communities of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC).
Nalukataq Celebration, Nuiqsut