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Subsistence Whaling Aftermath in the Arctic

Monday, October 1st, 2007

whalebones.jpgYesterday afternoon, Rusty, Emily and her son Henry and I set out for an afternoon beach walk to a point where a lagoon connects to the Arctic Ocean – about 4 miles from Wainwright. This past spring, the villagers harvested some 20-30 beluga whales. They had come across a pod of whales and used their power boats to herd the belugas towards the shore and commenced to shoot and harpoon the lot. Although whaling is not permitted for commercial harvest (Norwegians, Icelanders, and Japanese take a certain number of whales for ‘scientific’ purposes – and then sell the meat), aboriginal Alaskans are permitted to hunt whales and other marine mammals for subsistence purposes. Last year I encountered Australian aboriginals and Pacific Islanders taking dugongs (manatees)and sea turtles off of the Badu Island near Papau New Guinia. Each culture’s perspective on what animals to eat or not certainly reflects learned mores. Eating dog may be as repulsive, as eating pork, or beef, or insects, or whales depending on societal, ethnic, and religious values. Who can really judge? Well, maybe a vegetarian.


It was actually pretty gruesome to see the rotting remains of the little white belugas. I suppose it has something to do with the intelligence of whales, but I sure do not like to see them slaughtered. I have no problem with hunting moose and caribou and etc. – and maybe it is just my modern cultural perspective, but traditional or not, killing whales seems so unnecessary. I doubt that so many animals could have been killed using purely traditional means, and most certainly those who lived along the Arctic more than fifty years ago didn’t have grocery stores (however meager) and restaurants to supplement their diets as they now do.

Maybe the white-bread suburban culture of mainstream western society is as senseless – and if you think about the real consequences of the complacency of middle-america with wars, pollution, and republican family values of racism, greed, and ignorance, the end result is more destructive to the planet than what has happened here.

Global warming? The Arctic ice pack is usually already formed this time of year – all the way to the shore here. It’s been that way for thousands of years -but that’s changed in just the last 3 years. In the spring and summer, polar bears follow the retreating ice and wait for seals to surface and then kill and eat their prey. Both bears and seals also need the ice to rest, but the ice is still more than 300 miles away right now. As winter approaches, there is a concern that the bears will be too far from land when the temperatures really do drop. The thinning ice cover has already reduced the polar bear population as the animals have more open water to swim across to find new places to hunt. This year, the number of bears that are lost could be catastrophic.


On our hike, we came across Eskimo Jim, who was also out for a beach walk. Jim had fashioned a home-made spear to protect himself against wolves or bears. it’s getting to be that time of year when polar bears come in off the ice – although, as I mentioned in a preceding paragraph, the ice remains further away than it has ever been this time of year. Consequently, as the Arctic warms, the occasional brown and black bear finds its way to the north coast with increasing regularity.