Loss of Hunt Stings Eskimos

Natives, U.S. officials search for
options after commission's ruling.

John Hopson Jr. was chasing bowhead whales on the Chukchi Sea about midnight Thursday when word came over the VHF radio:

Eskimo whaling had been banned starting next year by the International Whaling Commission. With only one whale taken in his village's quota of seven, Hopson's whaling crew continued to hunt through the Arctic summer night.

But after Hopson-returned home to Wainwright on Friday morning, he looked up new stories on the Internet. He found the political retaliation against Alaska Eskimos baffling.

"It makes you angry, and in a way, it hurts on the inside," said Hopson, who is 26 and the father of two. "To know that my grandfather was hunting these whales, and my father was hunting these whales, and I'm hunting them now—for them to make it stop all of a sudden.... What were they thinking?"

As news of the loss of IWC approval spread across the North Slope on Friday, U.S. policymakers struggled with their next move.

Their challenge was finding a way to continue Alaska's annual bowhead hunts without undermining America's role in the 48-nation IWC where the United States has been influential in opposing commercial whaling.

A State Department spokesman said Friday the United States is pressing for a special IWC meeting to reconsider the Alaska subsistence vote. Another option, he said, would be a revote by mail.

Earlier in the day in Japan, the IWC fell one vote short of renewing a subsistence allocation for Alaska that has been in place since 1978.

Commission scientists and environmentalists supported the subsistence hunt. But a coalition led by Japan blocked the effort after the United States and Britain stopped Japan's effort to revive limited commercial whaling.

"Our coastal whaling bid has been rejected for 15 years. The United States ought to feel the same pain," Masayuki Komatsu, a senior official of Japan's Fisheries Agency, told one of the nation's leading newspapers, Asahi Shimbun.

The Japanese retaliation may threaten the stability of the international commission, which banned commercial whaling in 1986. But it is not expected to end the millennium-old tradition of Eskimo whaling.

Alaska politicians poured out support for the subsistence whalers Friday. North Slope Borough Mayor George Ahmaogak Sr. appealed for calm.

"We will work with the U.S. and the whaling communities to take the necessary steps to protect and continue the way of life that our elders have taught to us," Ahmaogak said in a written statement issued Friday from Japan.

In Kaktovik, whaling captain Eddie Rexford said he felt somewhat reassured after hearing Ahmaogak speak on the radio earlier in the day.

"He was saying that the U.S. is going to back us up and we'll be able to go ahead and whale, but I don't know," Rexford said. "I just recently heard about this. I guess we're still in shock here."

Whalers are in the last year of a five-year quota approved by the IWC in 1997. The quota allowed indigenous hunters in Alaska and Russia to land 280 bowheads during that period.

The U.S. government set an annual limit of 67 strikes, assuming some whales will be struck and lost, said Brad Smith, who monitors the hunts for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Seven of those strikes are apportioned each year to Natives in Russia, he said. The rest are divided among 10 villages by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, whose members are Inupiat and Siberian Yupik whalers. Because some unused strikes can be carried forward to the next year, this year’s quota in Alaska is 75 strikes, Smith said.

Last year, Eskimo whalers stayed under the quota, landing 49 whales. This year, with an early warming trend and poor ice conditions, only five bowheads have been landed so far-two in Barrow and one each in Wainwright, Gambell and Savoonga.

Negotiators were seeking another five-year quota of the same size. The  Bering- Chukchi-Beaufort bowhead population continues to grow at a healthy 3 percent rate, according to this year’s census, although they are still classified as an endangered species.

Japanese officials wanted the chance to commercially harvest 50 minke whales, a species not considered threatened. Japan argues coastal whaling is a tradition for some villages. They accused U.S. delegates of hypocrisy for opposing the minke hunt but supporting their own subsistence harvest.

With new pro-whaling allies enlisted to the commission, Japan had hoped to turn the vote in its favor at this year's annual meeting, which was held in the traditional Japanese whaling port of Shimonoseki.

In the end, Japan couldn't muster the votes to get its way. But it managed to block the aboriginal quota for Alaska and Russia, which requires a three-quarter vote in favor.

"This decision was the worst form of petty global politics and is simply intolerable," said Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska. "Subsistence whaling certainly is not a threat to the growing number of bowhead whales, but its absence is a threat to a centuries-old lifestyle and to the well-being of Alaska Eskimos."

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska said Friday that, one way or another, North Slope and western Alaska villages will continue hunting whales.

Young is vice chairman of the House Resources Committee. Dave Whaley, a committee staff member, said the IWC has no power to sanction the United States if Alaska whalers ignore the ban. But he acknowledged that U.S. credibility could be questioned by other member nations if Eskimos hunt without a quota.

"Obviously, we don't want to go that route," he said. "We want to do things legally."

Gov. Tony Knowles said the action was a harpoon aimed at the hearts of indigenous subsistence users of Alaska's North Slope and Russia's Chukotsk Peninsula.

"I intend to express Alaska's outrage over this matter to Secretary of State Colin Powell after first consulting with the whaling captains of the North Slope," Knowles said.

In the northern villages, whalers young and old were planning their own consultation meetings.

Hopson Jr. of Wainwright said the next move will be to organize and figure out a strategy.

"Until our delegates from down there get back home and let us know what the whole story is, and we figure out our options, then we’ll know what will happen in the next year," Hopson said. "We start whaling in April, so we have 11 months."

Tom Kizzia and Doug O'Harra, Anchorage Dally News