Alaska Natives are allowed to take beluga whales and other marine mammals for subsistence use. When the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed in 1972, it generally prohibited the taking (capturing, harassing, killing, etc.) of marine mammals, but authorization for Alaska Native take was provided as an exemption to the prohibition (Section 101(b)). In essence, the exemption allows Alaska Natives to take marine mammals for subsistence purposes and/or for materials to create authentic articles of handicraft or clothing, provided that the taking is not done in a wasteful manner. Alaska Native taking cannot be regulated by the federal government unless the population being harvested is declared to be depleted. Section 119 of the MMPA allows Alaska Native organizations to enter into cooperative agreements with federal agencies to co-manage Alaska Native marine mammal harvests.
MMPA Section 101(b) [EXEMPTIONS FOR ALASKAN NATIVES]— Except as provided in section 109, the provisions of this Act shall not apply with respect to the taking of any marine mammal by any Indian, Aleut, or Eskimo who resides in Alaska and who dwells on the coast of the North Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean if such taking:
(1) is for subsistence purposes; or
(2) is done for purposes of creating and selling authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing:
Provided, That only authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing may be sold in interstate commerce.
And provided further, That any edible portion of marine mammals may be sold in native villages and towns in Alaska or for native consumption. For the purposes of this subsection, the term “authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing” means items composed wholly or in some significant respect of natural materials, and which are produced, decorated, or fashioned in the exercise of traditional native handicrafts without the use of pantographs, multiple carvers, or other mass copying devices. Traditional native handicrafts include, but are not limited to weaving, carving, stitching, sewing, lacing, beading, drawing, and painting; and
(3) in each case, is not accomplished in a wasteful manner.
Notwithstanding the preceding provisions of this subsection, when, under this Act, the Secretary determines any species or stock of marine mammal subject to taking by Indians, Aleuts, or Eskimos to be depleted, he may prescribe regulations upon the taking of such marine mammals by any Indian, Aleut, or Eskimo described in this subsection.
Community members butchering harvested beluga in Point Lay in July of 2007
Point Lay beluga harvest on the barrier island along Kasegaluk Lagoon with the village of Point Lay in the background
Beluga Conservation Issues
Here are the Conservation Issues listed in 1999 (see Lowry and Schaeffer, 1999).
Uncertainty about distribution and movements:
- Movements of Eastern Chukchi Sea Stock
- Movements of Bristol Bay Stock
- Movements of Eastern Bering Sea Stock
- Still need more information on the Eastern Bering Sea Stock and Kotzebue Sound for the winter months
- Need fine scale data analyses for planning and mitigation
- Oil and Gas – relatively little activity until recent years, with significant operations (seismic, exploratory drilling, production, transport) expected soon
- Shipping – steadily increasing traffic through the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route
- Mining – Red Dog continues operations and Pebble Mine is in the planning stage
- Coastal Infrastructure – needed for all of the above
Increased human activity:
- Support activities for commercial developments
- Military activity and Coast Guard
- Science conducted from ships and airplanes
- Tourism and private vessels
- Steadily increasing temperatures
- Steadily decreasing sea ice coverage
- Changes in coastal concentration areas
- Changes in ecosystem components
Interactions with other species:
- Changes in killer whales and killer whale prey
- Terrestrial-marine connections (e.g., beavers impacting stream flows)
- Impacts of beluga on salmon stocks
- Incidental catches in fishing gear
- Impacts of fishing on salmon stocks
- Impacts of fishing on herring and groundfish
Non-issues (at this time):
- Subsistence Harvest – takes are lower than PBR
- Lowry, L.F., and R.L. Schaeffer. 1999. Conservation Issues for Western Alaska Beluga Whale Stocks. Presented to the 51st International Whaling Commission SC/51/SM38.