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A Whale of a Thanksgiving Day Feast

View slideshow A bowhead whale makes its way through the ice in the Arctic. Photo: Amelia Brower/NOAA 02_bowhead.jpg 03_bowhead.jpg 04_bowhead.jpg 05_bowhead.jpg

More Information

NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory bowhead whale page
The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management
The Bowhead Whale Spring Census (cool photos!)
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission
Endangered Species Act Turns 40

As most of the country is celebrating Thanksgiving with a traditional turkey dinner, residents of Barrow, Alaska, the northern-most city in the United States, will also be giving thanks in the traditional American way. But the animal they’ll be giving thanks over is a bit bigger than your average holiday bird.

About 20,000 times as big, give or take.

Since long before the Pilgrims first set foot in Plymouth, the Inupiat people on Alaska’s North Slope have been hunting bowhead whale. The subsistence whale hunt continues to this day, retaining many of the traditional techniques that have been passed down over generations. In a city of five thousand, a single agviq, as the Inupiat call the bowhead, can provide a meal and more for every family. For this, the people give thanks both as Inupiat and as Americans.

“We’ve been hunting bowheads for a couple thousand years,” said Harry Brower, who was eleven years old when he joined in his first whale hunt. “And I’m just being modest here. It’s estimated to go back much farther than that.”

In the United States, the bowhead whale is protected by both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Both laws contain exemptions for traditional subsistence use.

To the people of Barrow, and of the ten other Alaskan communities that also take bowhead, the whale’s value is both economic and cultural. In this remote region, where a gallon of milk can cost ten dollars, many families depend on whale to get by.

Ensuring that the Harvest is Sustainable

Commercial whalers hunted bowheads nearly to extinction in the 19th century. In 1978, the first year that the International Whaling Commission set a quota for subsistence hunting of bowheads in the U.S. Arctic, scientists estimate that there were between four and five thousand animals left in that population.

Today the population numbers around 17,000. “That’s a very impressive increase for an animal with a relatively slow reproductive rate,” said Craig George, a wildlife biologist with the North Slope Borough. “But they live in a clean ocean, are very long-lived, and have a low natural mortality rate,” he said.

Every few years in springtime, Craig and his colleagues conduct a visual survey of bowheads from a perch on the ice. Bowheads are coastal migrators, so they are visible to scientists as they make their way from the Bering Sea to their summer grounds in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. In addition, NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management collaborate on aerial surveys in areas where there is oil and gas exploration.

The combined survey and catch data are used by the International Whaling Commission to set the strike quota. As the name implies, once a hunter strikes a whale with his harpoon, it counts against the strike quota whether they land the animal or not.

"There's a great deal of information behind the quotas," said Phillip Clapham, who directs the Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center. "It's some of the best information we have on any whale population in the world."

Traditional Techniques in a Modern World

In the spring, whale hunters set up camp on the ice, where they scan the water for bowheads navigating through leads near the ice edge. When they spot one, they pursue it in a skinboat made of seal hides stretched over a driftwood frame. The water is below freezing and their boat is as delicate as the animal is mighty.

During the fall hunt, there are no leads to confine the whales, so the hunters pursue them in open water using an aluminum craft with an outboard motor.

“From the time you step out onto the ice it’s a dangerous business,” said Brower, who as a boy of eleven ran his own dog team to resupply the hunter’s camp with flour and coffee. After the whale is killed the hunters tow it as near to town as the ice will allow.

Then the town comes out. In the spring when there’s ice cover, they haul the animal onto the ice using only block and tackle, with as many as two hundred people heaving on the rope in a giant tug-of-war. Everyone then pitches in to butcher the animal.

“The sharing begins right there,” said Brower. “Whoever comes down to help receives a share.”

Bowheads have tremendous heads with bow-shaped skulls—thus their name—that they use to break through ice from below to breathe. They also have the thickest blubber of any whale, a delicacy, often eaten raw, that the Inupiat callmaktak. The thick blubber and large head are both adaptations to life in an icy Arctic. How well the bowheads will cope in a warming climate is unknown.

Industry Once Again Threatens the Bowhead

Bowheads were driven nearly to extinction during the first wave of industrial exploitation of the Arctic, which began in 1848 when American whalers first pushed through the Bering Strait. Today a second wave of industrialization threatens this cold-adapted species.

With longer ice-free periods, oil and gas exploration is increasing in both the U.S. Arctic and in the Okhotsk Sea in Russia, which hosts a separate, highly endangered population of bowheads. “The biggest potential threat is a major oil spill,” said Phil Clapham. “That's the nightmare scenario.”

Shipping traffic will also grow as the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route become clear of ice in the summer. That will increase the likelihood of ship strikes and intensify the level of shipping noise, which may interfere with the ability of whales to communicate.

But while the bowhead population faces an array of modern threats, the subsistence hunt, which takes about one-half of one percent of the U.S. Arctic population in a year, is not among them.

“Our way of life depends on the bowhead,” said Harry Brower. No group of people has more riding on the future of the bowhead whale population than the Inupiat of Alaska. For most Americans, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on the bounty that nature provides. But for Brower and his people on the North Slope, every day is a reminder.