Principal Investigators: J. Craig George, Robert Suydam
Collaborators: Judy Zeh, Gay Sheffield, Hans Thewissen
Funding: NSB, AEWC, NOAA
Summary: This research has been ongoing since the early 1980's with many other collaborators in the past, including: Tom Albert, Harry Brower, Jr., Taqulik Hepa, Charlie Brower, Cyd Hanns, Todd O'Hara, Mike Philo, Cheryl Rosa, John Reynolds, Dana Wetzel, Teri Rowles, and many more.

Alaska natives have been hunting bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) for thousands of years. This traditional subsistence hunt is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (click here for more details) and hunting is allowed for registered members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC). A quota for the number of whales taken by the AEWC is determined by the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

The NSB-DWM works with the AEWC to collect the data needed by the IWC to set the harvest quota. The IWC quota is based on: 1) the nutritional and cultural needs of Alaskan Natives in all of the 11 AEWC communities, and 2) the size and growth of the bowhead whale population. Measuring and sampling of subsistence-harvested bowhead whales began in the mid-1970's primarily under the guidance of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The NSB-DWM has run the program since the early 1980's. Information from harvested whales is also used to monitor the health of the bowhead population and the environment in which they live.

The bowhead harvest is reviewed by the IWC every year and the quota is set every five years. The last quota renewal occurred in May of 2007, with the current quota of 280 strikes (a strike is the take of a whale or the attempt of a take) allowed over the five year period from 2008-2012 and shared between the 11 whaling communities that are members of the AEWC. No more than 67 of those strikes can be used in any given year. This harvest level, about 0.1 - 0.5 % of the population, is very sustainable considering the bowhead whale population growth estimate of 3% per year. Even with the harvest, the BCB (Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort) stock of bowhead whales continues to grow. Research on the subsistence harvested bowhead whales is partly mandated by the IWC and, thus, this information is very important to the AEWC in maintaining the quota.

Bowhead whale blubber and skin (maktak) cut and ready to be boiled for uunaalik during a spring harvest in Barrow. Photo: Leslie Pierce

Bowhead whale blubber and skin (maktak) cut and ready to be boiled for uunaalik during a spring harvest in Barrow. Photo: Leslie Pierce

Harvest information provides data to aid in learning more about the bowhead population, including:

Migration Route of the BCB stock of bowhead whales
bowhead migration map.
This map shows the migration route of the BCB stock of bowhead whales that are hunted for subsistence on the North Slope. The Alaska Eskimo whaling communities and hunting areas are identified in red. These whaling communities, starting from the Canadian border, are Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Barrow, Wainwright, Point Hope, Kivalina, Little Diomede and Wales, and Savoonga and Gambell. Point Lay, located between Wainwright and Point Hope, has been added as a member of the AEWC since this map was produced. (Map courtesy of NSB Planning Department with support from AEWC, National Science Foundation, Barrow Arctic Science Consortium and NSB-DWM.)

Here is an updated Bowhead Range map generated by ADFG in 2011 using satellite-tagging data.

New Bowhead Range Map (ADFG)

  Traditional Distribution for Bowhead Whale Harvested at Barrow, Alaska poster. (Adapted from the NSB Inupiat History and Language Commission by Craig George and Eugene Brower and Harry Brower, Jr.)

Traditional Distribution for Bowhead Whale Harvested at Barrow, Alaska poster. (Adapted from the NSB Inupiat History and Language Commission by Craig George and Eugene Brower and Harry Brower, Jr.)

dividing of shares

After butchering of the whale is completed, the "shares" are separated and divided up amongst the crews and individuals that assisted in both butchering and pulling the whale to the ice edge or shore. (Photo: J.C. George)

Whaling captains share their bounty with the community during the Nalukataq feast in June. Prayers are offered in thanks for a successful whaling season. (Photo credit: Bill Hess)

Whaling captains share their bounty with the community during the Nalukataq feast in June. Prayers are offered in thanks for a successful whaling season. (Photo credit: Bill Hess)

Go to this page for more information on the importance of bowhead whale as a traditional Inupiat food.

Bowhead Whale Tissue Sample Collection

Many tissue samples are collected from subsistence-harvested bowhead whales to be used in population health assessment monitoring and biological studies, including stock structure, reproduction, aging, etc. Click here to find out more about what samples are collected and how they are used. You can find more information on bowhead whale health assessment studies on this page as well.

Bowhead whale blubber being measured during the fall harvest in 2001. Photo by Craig George

Bowhead whale blubber being measured during the fall harvest in 2001. Photo by Craig George

Young boy holding a bowhead eyeball to be collected for aging of bowhead studies. Photo: Craig George

Young boy holding a bowhead eyeball to be collected for aging of bowhead studies. Photo: Craig George

Here is a page from the harvest form used during the bowhead whale harvest showing the external measurements that are taken by the DWM. (Source: NSB-DWM)

Here is a page from the harvest form used during the bowhead whale harvest showing the external measurements that are taken by the DWM. (Source: NSB-DWM)

This poster provides information on why samples are collected from bowhead whales by the NSB-DWM.

More on Subsistence Harvest of Bowhead Whales

Papers:

Koski, W.R., et al. 2005. Subsistence harvests of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) at Kaktovik, Alaska (1973-2000). Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 7(1):33-37.

Suydam, R.S., and J.C. George. 2004. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos, 1974-2003. Presented to the 56th International Whaling Commission. SC/56/BRG12.

George, J.C., et al. 2004. Body Stretching of bowhead whales during hauling and butchering during the subsistence hunt. Presented to the 56th International Whaling Commission SC/56/BRG9.

Suydam, R.S. et al. 2005. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2004. Presented to the 57th International Whaling Commission SC/57/BRG15.

Suydam, R.S. et al. 2006. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2005. Presented to the 58th International Whaling Commission SC/58/BRG21.

Suydam, R.S. et al. 2007. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2006. Presented to the 59th International Whaling Commission SC/59/BRG4.

Suydam, R.S. et al. 2008. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2007. Presented to the 60th International Whaling Commission. SC/60/BRG10.

Suydam, R. et al. 2009. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2008. Presented to the 61st International Whaling Commission. SC/61/BRG6.

Suydam, R. et al. 2010. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2009. Presented to the 62nd International Whaling Commission. SC/62/BRG18.

Suydam, R. et al. 2011. Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Eskimos during 2010. Presented to the 63rd International Whaling Commission. SC/63/BRG2.

VonDuyke, A., et al. 2015. Premliminary assessment of the prevalence of Cyamid "Whale Lice" (Cyamus ceti) on Subsistence Harvested Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus). SC/66a/E07.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge of Bowhead Whales

Articles:

Iqaluit Bowhead Hunt  The Iqaluit harvested the first bowhead whale in over 70 years in Frobisher Bay in July 2011. Here are some articles describing their success.

 

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ON THE TAKING OF BOWHEAD WHALES AND THE USE OF BOWHEAD WHALE PARTS BY ALASKA NATIVES

Q:        Who can take bowhead whales?

A:         Only Alaskan Eskimos who are registered members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission may hunt bowhead whales in the U.S.

Federal law prohibits any taking or importation of marine mammals (including bowhead whales) and marine mammal products (including bowhead whale products).  However, there is an explicit exception to the prohibition on taking marine mammals for “any Indian, Aleut, or Eskimo who resides in Alaska and who dwells on the coast of the North Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean.”  See Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) Section 101(a) and (b) (16USC1371(a), (b)).

Under the U.S. Whaling Convention Act and the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, bowhead whales may be taken (including hunted) only by Alaskan Eskimo whaling captains and their Native crews, and then only if they are members of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Native people in Chukotka, Russia, may also hunt a small number of bowhead whales.

Q:        Who can use raw bowhead whale parts to make handicrafts?

A:         Only Native Alaskans can use raw bowhead whale parts to make handicrafts.

Under the Native exception, only Indians, Aleuts, or Eskimos may use raw marine mammal parts to make and sell traditional handicrafts or clothing, and then only if the handicrafts are made using traditional methods.  Native handicrafters may not use “pantographs, multiple carvers, or other mass copying devices.”

Q:        What happens if a non-Native takes a marine mammal or uses raw marine mammal
            parts to make handicrafts?

A:         Any non-Native who is found to have taken a marine mammal or made use of raw
            marine mammal parts without specific authorization from the National Marine Fisheries
            Service (whales and seals) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (polar bears and
            walrus), may be fined or may be put in jail.

Under the MMPA, the unauthorized taking of marine mammals (including bowhead whales) or the importation or use of marine mammal products (including bowhead whale products) is subject to criminal sanctions.

Q:        Could a non-Native ever use baleen or ivory to make handicrafts?

A:         A non-Native may purchase authentic Native handicrafts (including etched baleen) from Native Alaskans and
            use those handicraft products to remake or make other handicraft products. However, the products originally
            purchased must be true handicrafts. For example, a piece of baleen with a couple of lines scratched on it
            probably would not be considered a true handicraft, in which case both the seller and the buyer could be subject to
            criminal sanctions under the MMPA.

Bowhead Whale MMPA Fact Sheet pdf version of above

MMPA as amended in 2001

Customs Guide to Alaska Native Arts

USFWS Fact Sheet: Sale of Marine Mammal Parts and Handicrafts by Alaska Natives (2004)

USFWS Poster: Marine Mammal Handicrafts Significantly Altered

NOAA: Purchasing, Finding or Possessing Marine Mammal Skins or Parts

Exemption for Alaska Native Handicrafts from the Prohibition on the sale and purchase of Migratory Bird Parts (AFN)   A bill for amending the Migratory Bird Act is going through Congress now (September 2014).