Scientists and Natives gather to talk about whales and whaling

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Scientists met with Eskimos recently in a two-day exchange of information about whales and whaling.

Last week's conference attracted whaling specialists from as far away as Russia and Switzerland as well as several universities in the Lower 48. Some of the speakers charted ice variability, environmental change and whale subsistence over the past two millennia. And some of the speakers talked simply about their experiences on the chill waters off Alaska.

Joel James, a 32-year-old whaler from Gambell, in Western Alaska, quietly made a few comments about his hunting observations. His notes might have filled a single index card.

''And that's about it,'' he said.

With that, the auditorium at the Anchorage Museum of History and Art buzzed to life with questions posed by researchers. What had James noticed about whale movements near St. Lawrence Island? How did his village distribute the meat? Who was in charge of the whaling boats? If a whale hunt was unsuccessful, whose responsibility was it? To this last question, James stared quietly at the floor before answering.

''Maybe it's the whale's responsibility,'' he said to laughter.

While James conceded he sometimes wished there was someone to blame for a missed whale -- ''We don't do that,'' he said.

James called himself a ''striker,'' the crew member who fires on a whale, sinking a harpoon in the flesh. It's an important job, requiring skill and judgment. He said he might someday be considered eligible for boat captain but, currently, that position is held by his father.

James was one of 26 people who spoke at the conference -- Natives from five Alaska whaling communities as well as archaeologists, biologists, environmental scientists and cultural anthropologists from Alaska and elsewhere.

The idea was to bring together as many disciplines as possible to share information about whales, their conservation and their importance to Natives, said Allen McCartney, an organizer and professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas.

Contributions from Alaska Natives were especially sought.

Luther Komonaseak of Wales, in Western Alaska, made a plea during the conference to ''you scientific people'' to listen and respect Native knowledge when studying whale issues. Komonaseak said he supported his family with whale meat, and that the marine mammals were important to rural livelihoods in many villages.

No one disagreed with Komonaseak on the importance of consulting what one academic called ''Native science.'' In fact, several presenters characterized local knowledge as invaluable to their research.

''There's science based on a Western model, and then there's Native knowledge based on living in a community,'' McCartney said.

Both are valid, he said.

In 1977, for instance, scientific research indicated an alarming decline in the number of bowheads off Alaska's north coast, as few as 600 to 1,800. So the International Whaling Commission placed a moratorium on bowhead whale hunts.

Natives insisted the commission's numbers were drastically low. Later research bore that out, determining that 8,000- to 11,000 bowheads migrate annually to the Arctic Coast.

Alaska whalers in recent years have noticed warming trends that may affect the movement and numbers of whales in the region. The ice is shifting out sooner. Spring is earlier. Summer is hotter.

Again, their anecdotal information about how climactic changes affect the hunt are backed by science. Craig George, a wildlife biologist for the North Slope Borough, talked about how even subtle shifts in wind direction and speed impact hunting opportunities. In Barrow, an easterly wind holds ice leads open, he said. A westerly wind closes them.

''A small change in wind direction will shut the hunt down,'' George said.

Scientists left the conference saying that everyone was on the same page regarding whales -- realizing that whale numbers are a delicate thing that can be affected by changes in the environment.

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