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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 May 2007, 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK
Cultural claim to whale hunting
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website, Barrow, Alaska

The umiaq is a wooden-framed boat covered in sealskin

From the Barrow shore, the ice appears to stretch forever.

With feet planted in soft, squelching Arctic mud, you strain to make sense of the jumbled ridges and crags of ice which serrate the white terrain.

At some indeterminably distant point, a band of dark cloud hovers, apparently held between twin fingers of ice and sky.

The cloud marks the end of the shorebound ice, the beginnings of water - the lead which bowhead whales are following as they make their annual northwards trek from the cold waters of the Bering Sea between Siberia and Alaska to the even colder Beaufort Sea.

Strung out along the edge of the lead, waiting for the whales as they have done virtually every spring for 1,000 years, are Native Inupiat hunters for whom whales mark the centrepiece of the nutritional and cultural worlds.

When the whaling captain deems the time is right, his crew will slip their sealskin boat into the water and sidle up to the whale, ignored by their prey which perceives the boat as just another wild creature sharing its ocean.

If the crew's skill and fortune hold out, the prize will be killed with an explosive charge, snared with harpoons and wrested back to the ice, to lose its skin, blubber and meat to the appetites of the Barrow Inupiat community.

Double standards?

The Alaskan Eskimo hunt is one of five permitted by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is holding its annual meeting in Anchorage on the other side of Alaska, under rules governing "aboriginal" or "subsistence" hunting.

Traditional hunting implements hang in a cafe in Barrow

The right is handed out to groups which, in the IWC's view, have a nutritional and cultural need for whalemeat, and where the whale population appears sufficiently robust.

Quotas are awarded for periods of five years, and are being reviewed at this year's IWC meeting.

Maintaining the Alaskan bowhead quota is a political imperative for the US, which is why it volunteered to be this year's host and hold the meeting as close to the Inupiat communities as possible.

"It's the way of life for the Native Eskimos," says US whaling commissioner Bill Hogarth.

"They use [the whales] for everything, for their whole livelihood, and they share the meat between the villages. We feel it's extremely important for them, and so long as it meets its scientific criteria, this quota should be granted."

That is not to say that everyone is happy with the US policy of supporting subsistence hunting as it currently exists, but blocking and condemning all other whaling.

"The US is an anti-whaling whaling nation - it hunts whales and is against whaling elsewhere," fumes Rune Frovik from the High North Alliance, which campaigns for the rights of whalers and sealers in northern latitudes.

"This is at the outset an irreconcilable and contradictive policy, and has made the US worthy of accusations of double standards and hypocrisy."

Similar sentiments exist in the Japanese camp, which has constantly asked that four of its coastal communities, with whaling traditions dating back hundreds if not thousands of years, also be granted quotas.

Killing me softly

Opponents argue that the Japanese coastal communities are basically modern towns. Some are involved in Japan's current scientific whaling programme, where they hunt using modern boats and modern harpoons.

Model of a bowhead whale at the Cultural Centre in Barrow

But Greenland's indigenous hunters, unlike the Inupiat, also use modern boats and modern harpoons. They also sell some of the meat.

On the economic front, Barrow, for all its traditional lifestyle, has a per-capita income higher than the Alaskan average.

The whalemeat is not sold, but trinkets and artwork made from bone and baleen are. At the shop inside the Anchorage hotel which hosts the IWC meeting, you can pick up a statue carved from Alaskan whalebone costing $12,000 (6,000).

A big whaling issue in recent years has been killing methods, with animal rights groups pressing for techniques which cause death as quickly as possible.

Killing methods have improved in all types of whaling. But documents submitted to IWC show that fin whales caught by Greenlandic hunters take about 20 minutes to die - 10 times longer than minkes harpooned in Norway's commercial hunting programme.

Yet most animal rights groups protest against Norway's activities, and refrain from tackling the Greenlandic hunt.

Unquiet waters

Patrick Ramage, head of the whaling campaign at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw), denies any charges of political expediency.

Alaska/Chukotka: 56 bowheads
Chukotka: 124 grays
Greenland: 187 minkes, 19 fins
Makah (Washington state, US): 5 grays
Bequia (St Vincent and the Grenadines): 4 humpbacks

"Ifaw is able to distinguish between legitimate subsistence whaling for subsistence needs in Native communities, and misleading attempts to resuscitate commercial whaling in the 21st Century," he says.

"We are profoundly concerned with the interests of people as well as the interests of the creatures we campaign on, and we continue to work for practices and policies that advance the interests of both."

But behind the scenes there is considerable disquiet within welfare organisations and traditionally supportive governments, including the US.

It was stimulated here by representatives of the Greenland and Chukotka hunts, who arrived in Anchorage asking for substantially bigger quotas and, in the case of Greenland, to extend their programme to new species, the bowhead and the humpback.

Private disquiet does not often turn into public opposition, except in the case of the other indigenous US hunt, by the Makah tribe based near Seattle, whose whaling has been delayed by a long-running legal case.

But it is there, which perhaps suggests that the acceptance of subsistence whaling is not as widespread nor as guaranteed as some would suggest.

Culture of resilience

In Barrow - Utquiagvik, in the Inupiaq tongue - the reality of subsistence whaling perhaps comes closest to meeting its image; though the Bequians of St Vincent and the Grenadines, whose hunting methods until recently involved jumping on the back of the humpback whale to stab it with a handheld harpoon, might contest the claim.

The VHF wavebands crackle with messages between whaling teams out on the ice and the support system back in town.

A whale has been landed. The crew predicts how long it will take them to finish processing the meat, a group of scientists heads out to take samples, and congratulations are offered.

Perhaps, eventually, things will change here. Perhaps climate warming will redirect the bowhead migration route, or the younger Inupiat will grow tired of the traditional lifestyle and opt for a more mainstream US existence.

But the culture has proved remarkably resilient. And for now, the meat and the muktuk - a blend of skin and blubber, usually eaten raw - will continue to pass around the community, and make a special appearance on festival days here in the majestic white expanse of the Arctic.

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