Eskimo Whaling Commission – Overview and current concerns
As you probably know, Inupiat and Siberian Yupik Eskimos living in coastal villages in northern and northwestern Alaska have been hunting the bowhead whale (balaena mysticetus) for thousands of years. Today this entire community of whaling villages continues to participate in the activities surrounding the subsistence bowhead whale hunt, ensuring that the traditions and skills of the past associated with their culture will be carried on by future generations. Each whale provides thousands of pounds of meat and maktak (blubber and skin) which is shared by all the people, both in the community and beyond. Portions of each whale are saved for celebrations at Nalukataq (the blanket toss or whaling feast) [image, image], Thanksgiving and Christmas.
So how did the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission get started? In July 1977, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was informed (incorrectly) by U.S. Government scientists that the Bering Sea stock of bowhead was between 600 and 1,800 whales . For the first time, the IWC extended its existing regulation to aboriginal whaling activity and voted to ban the Alaska Eskimo subsistence harvest. Our reaction was immediate and on August 29, 1977, with the authority vested in the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope (ICAS), the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) was formed. Its major purpose was to represent the whaling communities in an effort to convince the United States Government to take action to preserve the Eskimo subsistence hunt of bowhead whales. In a special meeting held in December, 1977, the US Government promised to undertake a major research effort to provide a better estimate of both the size of the stock and its rate of reproduction, known as ‘the gross annual recruitment rate.’ The US also agreed to document the subsistence and cultural need for bowhead in each Alaskan Eskimo whaling community. As a result, the IWC approved a limited quota of 18 strikes for the 1978 bowhead whale harvest across the 10 member villages of the AEWC.
Our subsistence whaling communities agreed to abide by these restrictions until it was proven that our estimates of the bowhead whale population were correct. The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management then undertook principal responsibility for the monumental task of trying to find and count bowhead whales (see Bowhead Behavior&Biology).
For its part, the AEWC resolved to cooperate to the fullest extent with US federal research efforts. At the same time, it also began to develop a management plan to be followed by all the whalers to help improve the efficiency of the subsistence hunt and it undertook efforts to educate the outside world about the importance of the bowhead whale to the way of life of Alaskan Eskimo communities sustained by whaling
Today, an on-going bowhead whale census off of Point Barrow continues to have high priority and is carried out by the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management on behalf of the AEWC and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
The subsistence bowhead whale hunt continues to be conducted under the regulation of the IWC through harvest quotas. The quotas are based in part upon bowhead whale population estimates that are supplied to the IWC by the AEWC, the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management and NOAA as a result of the census data mentioned above. As of spring, 1999, the current bowhead population size estimate is 8,000 whales with a 95% probability that the true population size estimate is between 6,400 and 9,200 whales. Inupiaq whalers as well as whale biologists agree that the stock now seems to be reproducing well beyond the replacement rate notwithstanding the annual harvest.
Today, the AEWC exists as a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation whose purpose is:
preserve and enhance a vital marine resource, the bowhead whale, including
the protection of its habitat;
To meet the purposes
outlined above, the Commission has established the following goals:
Organization and major activities
The AEWC is made up of the registered whaling captains and their crew members from each of the ten whaling communities in Alaska: Gambell, Savoonga, Wales, Little Diomede, Kivalina, Point Hope, Wainwright, Barrow, Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik. The registered whaling captains are voting members and crew members are non-voting members. The AEWC is directed by a board of ten elected Commissioners, one from each whaling village. This Board has complete authority over all of the Commission’s affairs.
It is important to understand where the Commission’s power and authority comes from. Whereas AEWC’s initial authority came through ICAS, the Federal Government also takes its authority from several sources. This regulatory authority is vested in the Federal Government under the Whaling Convention Act of 1949, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973. Federal authority for local management of the Eskimo subsistence bowhead whale hunt and for enforcement of regulations imposed on that hunt is substantially delegated to the AEWC through a cooperative agreement, initiated in March, 1981, with the US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The purpose of the NOAA-AEWC Cooperative Agreement is to protect the bowhead whale and Eskimo culture, to promote scientific research of the bowhead whale, and to effectuate the other purposes of the MMPA, the Whaling Convention Act, and the ESA as these acts relate to aboriginal subsistence whaling. In order to achieve these purposes, the agreement provides for:
between members of the AEWC and NOAA in management of the subsistence
bowhead whale hunt;
The members of the AEWC are afforded a public forum to speak on issues that affect them and to set quotas at the annual AEWC Whaling Captains’ Convention. Today a regional five-year quota is negotiated with the IWC with input from the AEWC, but without direct voting powers. Once the regional quota has been set, it is up to the AEWC membership to decide how best to divide the quota among the member villages. The whaling captains set the quota for each whaling community based on historical, cultural and subsistence needs. Once the village quota has been agreed upon, it is up to the local Whaling Captains’ Associations to manage the hunt as it is conducted in each community. Each village whaling captains’ association has developed and adopted rules and regulations concerning the hunt which all whalers from that village have agreed to abide by.
At the annual convention, the 150 whaling captains (who are highly respected in their communities) not only decide on the division of the quota, but they also negotiate the priority issues affecting their subsistence whaling which they want the AEWC to pursue. In the past, these have included, among other issues, putting priority on the development of the weapons improvement program in order to minimize struck and lost whales; developing supporting documentation of the importance of bowhead whaling to indigenous ways of life throughout the region; and monitoring and providing input regarding development that has the potential for affecting the health of the bowhead population. In addition, we have the direction from this forum to seek a change in the IRS code which would recognize that the costs whaling captains incur in the support of whaling should be counted as charitable contributions.
Much of our research has been conducted through the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management and with the support of NOAA. Although our struggles are never over, it’s worth noting some of the accomplishments of our past efforts:
a result of careful census work, the long-standing observations of Inupiat
whalers have been corroborated and the IWC accepts that bowhead numbers
are significantly higher than they had first thought;
Since the early 1980s, the AEWC has worked with the United States Congress, MMS, NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service, as well as with oil and gas industry operators in Alaska to help to address issues related to the interaction of OCS oil and gas operations with the bowhead subsistence hunt. We have also worked with the agencies and operators to help to develop mitigation plans and conflict avoidance agreements regarding exploration programs that are designed to minimize the potential for conflicts and negative impacts between subsistence hunters and industry operators. In all of our interactions on these issues, the AEWC seeks to maintain a cooperative approach except in cases where we have been unable to convince other parties to give appropriate weight to our communities’ concerns. The North Slope Borough has and continues to support the AEWC on these matters. We are pleased that we have been able to contribute on these issues. At the same time, however, we are very aware that gains made today can be lost tomorrow. In terms of development, those gains only ever seem to be partial at best. As we have testified to over and over – as members of AEWC, as representatives of village Whaling Captains’ Associations, and as individuals – Inupiaq traditional knowledge is detailed, extensive and relevant to many of the development issues that are on the table now. It is traditional knowledge, among other things, about currents, ice movements, storms and perhaps most importantly, about the animals we depend on for our livelihood. All too often that traditional knowledge is sidelined or taken into account in a peripheral sort of way. The continuing refusal by federal agencies to take account of the information our Whaling Captains and scientists provide is a deep insult to our people and remains a very serious stumbling block to true cooperation between our communities and the Federal Government and oil and gas industry operation. Despite our disappointment about this, we continue to be involved, to the greatest extent possible, in all planning and implementation processes related to Beaufort and Chukchi Sea oil and gas exploration and development.
At the beginning of the new millennium, AEWC continues to be greatly concerned about the expansion and increasing intensity of OCS (Outer Continental Shelf) activities from industrial operators. It continues to negotiate Conflict Avoidance Agreements whenever an IHA or an LOA is applied for by oil and gas companies. AEWC continues to be represented at meetings concerning general development issues throughout the North and Northwest Arctic. It’s hard to emphasize enough how important this is. In a recent letter to the Minerals Management Service, Winton Weyapuk, President of the Wales Whaling Captains’ Association, put it this way:
My father once asked me (as I was leaving to attend an AEWC meeting with officials from the NMFS) who would speak for the bowhead? I believe what he meant was that, as members of the AEWC, we should attempt to communicate with federal and oil company officials from the bowheads’ perspective, because, through our lifestyle, we are connected with them. He meant that the disrespect we show to bowheads is disrespect we show to ourselves. He also meant that in speaking of them, we are disrespectful if we dare to discuss how and where they should live their lives. Putting up man-made islands and disturbing whales through associated activities in effect tells them they are not welcome in what was once their home. (October 12, 2000, letter to MMS, Alaska OCS region).
The residents of our coastal and near-coastal villages rely heavily on subsistence hunting in the Outer Continental Shelf for our food and our cultural existence. The AEWC feels very strongly that the Federal government and the State of Alaska must maintain the most rigorous possible oil spill contingency plan and clean up requirements for the present time and for the immediate future.
Given the potential devastation that could occur along Alaska’s northern coast in the event of an oil spill, it is in everyone’s best interests to maximize the level of protection and required contingency equipment.
At the present time, the AEWC believes that the following topics are the most important for the Federal Government and OCS operators to work on with us:
Northstar Production: BP (Alaska), Inc.’s interest means that in all likelihood we will see production in the Arctic Outer Continental Shelf in the very near future. For our people, this means that the noise impacts and exploration risks we have fought so hard to mitigate now will be joined by the risk of oil spills as oil is transported from the site to shore. Mitigation measures will need to be developed to address construction and production impacts as they come to light. Given the potential devastation that could occur along Alaska’s northern coast in the event of an offshore oil spill, it is in everyone’s best interest to maximize the level of protection and required contingency equipment.
Monitoring plans: The AEWC requires monitoring plans for all OCS activities undertaken during the fall bowhead whale migration, whether the bowhead subsistence hunt is in progress or not.
Seismic Operations: Seismic noise remains in particular of great concern to our Whaling Captains and crews. The AEWC, a number of our Captains and the NSB Department of Wildlife Management have present extensive testimony and comments on noise effects. The AEWC whaling captains have argued for years that industrial noise, especially seismic noise, causes migrating bowhead whales to deflect offshore. Our whaling captains also report bowhead whales becoming ‘skittish’ and more difficult to hunt. Scientists refer to this behavior as a ‘change in surface behavior.’ This impact does not show up in most research, however, because the research usually is done from airplanes and the focus is on location, not behavior.
IWC Quota regime: The IWC quota regime continues to be a critical part of our bowhead subsistence hunt, regulating how many whales are available to our communities each year and providing for international oversight of our hunting activities and the environmental circumstances surrounding our hunt. Under the IWC regime, the AEWC is allowed to strike only a limited number of bowhead whales each year. For 1999, that number was 75, to land 56 whales.
How this connects up with directly with development issues is through the question of ‘efficiency rate.’ The efficiency rate is the percentage of whales landed in a year from the total quota for that year. Therefore, every whale that is ‘struck but lost’ during the hunt reduces the efficiency rate for that year. When industrial noise interferes with our hunt and causes us to lose a whale, for any reason, that whale is deducted from our quota for the year and is factored into our efficiency rate. If our efficiency rates drop, the IWC is inclined to reduce our quota.
This involves a number of factors. The longer distances our hunters must travel because the whale migration has shifted due to industrial noise not only increase the risk for our hunters, these distances also increase the risk that meat and maktak will spoil or that a whale will be lost. If a whale spoils during the towing, it counts as a ‘landed’ whale and therefore does not reduce our efficiency rate. However, the whale does count against our quota even though the meat from that whale is permanently lost. If a whale must be cut loose because it was taken far from shore and ice or weather conditions prevent the crew from being able to land it, we have lost a quota strike. In this case, not only have we lost the meat, but our efficiency rate is also reduced because the whale is counted as struck but lost. Similarly, if an attempt is made to take a ‘skittish’ whale and the whale’s unusual behavior causes the crew to be unable to track it or to complete the take, that whale counts as a struck but lost whale. The meat and maktak is lost and the strike is counted against our efficiency rate for the year.
These events are all facts of life for our Whaling Captains. The Whaling Captains have learned to live with the quota – for now – as a fact of life, just like the sea ice and the weather.
Beyond these development issues, AEWC continues to monitor the size and health of the bowhead stock present in Arctic waters; it continues to support the needs of Whaling Captains whenever possible; it continues to provide support for the development and provision of improved weapons technologies which can lower the struck-but-lost rate and can improve the most ‘humane’ harvesting methods. In addition, for the past several years, AEWC has supported recent efforts of Siberian Chukotkan hunters and Makah peoples to reinstate their customary whaling.
The AEWC Management Plan (View the AEWC
Management Plan in PDF format)
One of the first goals of the AEWC was to develop a management plan. This is designed to “a) insure an efficient subsistence harvest of bowhead whales; b) provide a means within customary Alaskan Eskimo practices and institutions of protecting the habitat of the bowhead whale and limiting the bowhead whale harvest in order to prevent the extinction of such species; and c) provide for Eskimo regulation of all whaling activities who are members of the AEWC.” The Management Plan sets out the powers and duties of the AEWC (to administer and enforce regulations; to conduct village education programs and to initiate research for the improvement of weapons). The AEWC shall establish the levels of harvest or attempted harvest for each whaling village during each season or seasons. In establishing the levels of harvests or attempted harvest, the AEWC shall consult each whaling village.
1) Each captain is required to register with the AEWC, disclosing his name, address, age, qualifications as a captain (in particular that he has the necessary gear to conduct whaling activity), and stating his willingness to abide by the regulations of the AEWC.
2) Each registered whaling captain is then responsible for recording specific information on an AEWC Harvest Report Form.
a) In the case of struck but lost whales, Captains must record the size and type of bowhead; the reason for the lost strike (environmental factors, failure of traditional weapons or other reasons); the condition of the whale that was not harvested (its life expectancy); and whether or not any later harvest attempts were made, successfully or not.
b) In the case of a successful harvest, Captains must give details about the whale (size, sex, stomach contents, etc.), the weapons used, the location of the whale, the time it took to die and whether or not there was anything unusual about the whale.
3) Finally, each whaling captain shall make other reports at the request of AEWC to advance the scientific knowledge of the bowhead whale.
Conduct of the hunt
Permissible Harvesting Methods are restricted to ‘traditional’ methods as defined in AEWC subsection 100.21 (e). Claims to the bowhead whale also follow traditional rules, starting with the captain and crew which first struck the whale (see Management Plan Subsection 100.24). During whaling, all crews shall bring their garbage back to land and dispose of it in a proper manner. The meat and products, except for traditional native handicrafts, may not be sold or offered for sale. These issues were discussed as common to all ten member villages of the AEWC and therefore are dealt with by the AEWC Convention resolution that all villages must abide by.
Because the activities of spring and fall whaling are so intense, many people do not realize that whaling is really a year round effort. I want to give you a brief picture of the many responsibilities Whaling Captains and their crew members have that demand attention throughout the year. It is important to keep in mind that different villages have different ecosystems and different whaling rhythms. As Isaac Akootchook, a Kaktovik Whaling Captain, pointed out not too long ago, ‘What will be effective in your village will not be good for our part of the country.’ The fact that whaling is a year round activity is true for all of our communities. Exactly what those activities are and when they happen, will vary from community to community. What follows below reflects the needs and actions of Whaling Captains in and around the Barrow area.
Summertime Whaling Activity includes many different sorts of preparation for whaling – it includes collecting food supplies as well as materials that are needed for our whaling equipment. (Additional Information)
· Bearded seal (ugruk): Ugruk hunting generally begins in early summer just as the whaling celebrations are coming to a close. They are hunted for seal oil and dried meat, both of which are used for food while on the ice during spring whaling. In addition, uuti – a fermentation that creates a natural tanning process – ‘cures’ the ugruk skins which are then sewn together to cover our traditional skin whaling boats, or umiapiat. Once an ugruk has been caught, the blubber must be cut up to make oil; the meat must be cut properly for drying or storage; and the skins must be stored (in gunnysacks) properly so that they will cure during the winter and can be used in the spring for boat covers.
· Fishing: Gill net fishing takes place in the summertime, fall and winter. In the summer, fish is dried and stored; when it is cold enough to freeze, it can be stored fresh-frozen in ice-cellars for winter food and spring whaling.
· Walrus hunting: Walrus (aivik) is generally hunted toward the end of the summer. Walrus is an especially important source of nutrition during harsh winter and springtime conditions. As with our other hunted food, the meat can be butchered and stored fresh frozen, or it can be cooked and frozen. The flipper is fermented throughout the fall and winter and is a delicatessen for the whaling crew in the spring. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for whalers to be able to stay warm on the ice. Fermented walrus flipper and walrus meat (kauk) as well as ugruk seal oil and dried meat (kinniqtaq) are truly excellent sources of the kind of calories needed to keep our whalers going when they have to be out in fiercely cold weather.
Fall whaling activities (Additional Information)
· Caribou (tuttu) is hunted at different times of year. Generally speaking, however, fall is the best time for caribou hunting. That is the time when they provide the best meat and fat as well as the thickest hides which get turned into mattresses for whalers camping out on the ice. Tendons from the legs and from the back are saved to be turned into sinew; the leg tendons will be dried, braided into thread and used to sew the skin of the umiapiaq, or skin-covered whaling boat. All of the meat, including the heart, tongue, liver and head is saved. The meat can be cut and hung on racks to dry, it can be stored in seal oil, or it can be stored in ice cellars.
· Fall whaling takes place in Kaktovik, Nuiqsut and Barrow. It starts when the fall migration of the bowhead whale begins from Canadian waters and proceeds through the Alaskan Beaufort Sea and down into the Chukchi Sea and through the Bering Strait. Because fall whaling takes place in open waters and whalers need to travel much further and faster than in the spring, conventional boats with outboard motors are used instead of skin boats. Whalers leave from town on a daily basis rather than camping on the side of the lead. When a crew catches a whale, the captain’s wife and crew members’ wives help by serving boiled maktak, soup, bread and coffee or tea to the whaling crews who are participating in the butchering of the whale. In addition, the captain’s wife must feed the whole community like in the Springtime. Cooked maktak, whale tongue, kidney, heart, intestines and meat are served along with bread, coffee or tea and cooked homemade fruit. And as with Spring Whaling, two thirds of the Community’s share, the uati, is put aside for Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts for distribution to the Community through the churches. In Nuiqsut and Kaktovik, fall whales are also distributed during the following year’s Nalukataq.
Wintertime whaling activity: Fishing and caribou hunting continue throughout the winter months. Towards the late winter, captains and their wives begin to check their equipment and figure out what needs to be repaired or replaced before the spring hunt begins. The boat frame in particular needs to be check and repaired if necessary. If a boat needs to be rebuilt, this needs to happen in good time. (Additional Information)
Springtime whaling activity: activity really intensifies as the light returns, the ice thickens and spring whaling starts to be on people’s minds full time. (Additional Information)
* Preparation: Ice cellars need to be cleaned and made ready. The stored ugruk skins need to be thawed and scraped; sinew must be turned into thread; the skins themselves need to be sewn into new covers and then put onto the boat frames. Whaling equipment, warm clothing and camping equipment for the entire crew all need to be checked and rechecked – some by the Whaling Captains and some by their wives. Ice conditions need to be monitored and an ice road cut (which is even more important in case crews need to get off the ice quickly than for getting out to camp).
As Edalee Ahmaogak described it: ‘One or two weeks before going out to the open lead, the whaling captains and their crews will be breaking trail through rugged ice, tearing ice down to make a trail for the skin boat and sleds to get through safely to the open lead. All snow machines must be in good order and running condition. All sleds must be readied and repaired if broken. Coleman stoves must be in good condition. All grub boxes must be repaired, as they get wobbly from use and travel. Caribou or polar bear mattresses must be dried and ready to go as well as sleeping bags. The Captain’s wife checks all personal gear, such as fur liners for boots, parkas, snowshirts (qatignisit, or white parka covers), gloves, fur hats and so forth. She must also purchase at least a week’s worth of groceries to provision the grub box. Finally, the captain gets all whaling gear ready: weapons include darting gun, shoulder gun, projectile bombs, black powder, harpoons, floats, oars, rope, a safety kit and sewing kits. Extra sinew must be on board the umiapiaq in case the skin rips or gets a hole in it.’
* Catching a whale. As soon as a crew has caught a whale, word goes out and the other crews rush to help tow the whale to the edge of the lead, they and many community members help to land it on the ice and crews then help to butcher it. The captain and his wife must feed all the crews who help to butcher the whale – usually with boiled maktak, coffee and or tea in order to keep everyone as warm as possible. The next day, the captain and his wife must feed the entire town. A third of the uati, or Community share, is served to the community at this time, along with half of the heart, kidney, a quarter of the tongue, and half of the small intestines. The tavsi (the share of the successful crew) is divided among the captain and his crew. The rest of the whale is shared in very specific ways – some to the successful crew; some to all of the crews; some set aside for community feasts. Finally comes pilianiaq – when women who are present at the end of the butchering are invited to remove whatever meat is left.
* Apugauti marks the last time a successful whaling captain brings his boat back to shore at the end of the whaling season. At this time, the captain’s flag goes up on the beach and everyone is invited to come eat for about an hour. For this feast, mikigaq, (fermented whale meat, tongue and maktak), and goose soup has been prepared. These will be served along with Eskimo donuts, coffee, tea, kool-aid and cakes to celebrate the bringing up of the boat.
* Nalukataq is the final celebration of a successful season. It takes place, as the captain decides, sometime during June and in Barrow, lasts from late morning through until the end of the Eskimo dance late that night. Many crews go hunting for ducks and geese to make good soup, but even more important is the preparation of huge quantities of mikigaq which will be served to hundreds of people. This takes place a week before the Nalukataq; the timing must be exactly right so that the fermentation process is perfect. Cakes, donuts and other desserts must be plentiful enough to feed the whole community as well as the large number of visitors, family and friends who have come in from out of town for the event. No sooner has Nalukataq finished than time for ugruk hunting has begun. The cycle never ends.
The AEWC appreciates the opportunity to report our work with you on these issues that are so important to our people.
 Inupiat were not consulted regarding this estimate. Their reaction was that large numbers of whales had not been counted; their estimates (later confirmed) were that the stock at that time was a least 4,000 strong.
 ICAS is the regional/federal tribal government for the region and was formed under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). As such, it was recognized by the Federal Government as having the authority to generate local policies concerning natural resources important for Inupiat. The AEWC was subsequently incorporated under the State of Alaska on January 3, 1981 and is now a separate entity managing the resource independently.
 This quote is excerpted from a letter written by Douglas K. Hall, Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere to then AEWC chairman, Burton Rexford, on May 7m 1996.
 A great deal of this information was set out by Arnold Brower, Sr. as the AEWC began its campaign to get the costs of whaling recognized by the IRS as community-oriented expenditures that should be deductible. See Whaling Activity Year Round for Purposes of IRS, or Overview of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission by Miss Edalee Ahmaogak for a more detailed summary of these activities; see also appendices attached to Barbara Bodenhorn’s presentation.
 Inupiaq History, Language and Culture Commission Elders’ Conference, Men’s Session, July 11, 1991.