Bowhead Whale Subsistence Harvest Research

Principal Investigators J. Craig George, Robert Suydam
Collaborators Judy Zeh, Gay Sheffield, Hans Thewissen


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 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

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

Migration Route of the BCB stock of bowhead whales:

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.

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.)

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)

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 Young boy holding a bowhead eyeball to be collected for aging of bowhead studies. Photo by 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)

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


Popular 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.

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