Icebreaker changes route to address whaler concerns

Posted: Monday, May 13, 2002

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- An icebreaking ship used for Arctic research will change its sailing schedule after Eskimo whalers said the ship's original intended route might disrupt the spring hunt of bowhead whales.

The Coast Guard's 420-foot icebreaker Healy left Nome Wednesday, according to Peter West, spokesman for the National Science Foundation. NSF-supported researchers are using the ship in studies of the Arctic Ocean.

The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission had expressed concerns about the presence of the ship along the northwest Alaska coast.

From Nome, the Healy was scheduled to pass Point Hope, then turn east, parallelling the coast toward Barrow. After that it was to move into the Beaufort Sea well north of Prudhoe Bay.

From there, it was to cruise shoreward for a period before heading back west and north into areas farther offshore.

Under the new plan, West said, the ship will cruise the further offshore waters first.

''They will do some offshore work, which was scheduled to be done anyway,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''That will put them offshore when the whales are close inshore.''

Bowhead whales move up the coast of Alaska and into the Beaufort Sea each spring, following open leads in the ice. Crews from coastal villages pursue the whales using small boats, snowmachines and whaling guns.

The Healy will cover the areas closer to shore in June, after the whale migration and hunts are done.

Researchers on the ship are investigating the mixing of water columns in the shallow and deeper waters of the Arctic, and what effects climate change is having on that mix.

The Healy can crunch steadily through up to 4.5 feet of ice at 3 knots, according to the Coast Guard. It can break through up to 8 feet of ice by backing and ramming.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, announced the cruise change last week.

''This agreement avoids undue disruption of the spring whale hunt and lets NSF move forward on their important Arctic research,'' Stevens said in a statement.

Western arctic bowheads number about 9,860, up from about 8,200 in 1993, according to Stevens.

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