Mother makes canned whale care package for soldier son

Posted: Thursday, September 04, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Stuck in the dusty Iraqi desert, soldier Jared Wallace wrote to his mother about the suffocating 110-degree heat and asked for a care package.

''He said, 'Mom, please send some of your homemade canned meat,''' said D.J. Blatchford of Nikiski.

Blatchford will pickle meat from one of four beluga whales that died after 46 were stranded near Girdwood last week, pack the glass jars in bubble wrap and send them to her son, a team leader for the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

As Southcentral whale hunters with Inupiat heritage, Blatchford and her husband, Joel, salvaged a whale for the local Native community after it washed up dead Friday south of Bird Point along the Seward Highway.

Scientists found no clear indication of what killed the 13-foot, 8-inch white male, said Barbara Mahoney, a beluga management biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

''In a lot of these mass strandings, you don't find a major cause of death,'' said Eagle River veterinary pathologist Kathy Burek, who inspected the animal. ''In this case, it's most likely related to the tide.''

At least three other whales died after the stranding, including a 13-foot, 4-inch male that grounded off the Potter Marsh area on Saturday and was examined on Sunday. That whale also showed no obvious cause of death, Mahoney said. Its stomach was empty and its carcass had been pecked by birds.

The third carcass was seen in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, and a fourth was reported beached near Nikiski, Mahoney said.

''I think they were caught with the extreme tide in Turnagain Arm while chasing silver salmon,'' Mahoney said.

A genetically isolated population of about 350 belugas roams upper Cook Inlet, where they're listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Native hunters from Tyonek or other Southcentral communities can take one or two whales per year under an agreement with the federal government.

When the tide dropped nearly 38 feet on Thursday afternoon, at least 46 whales were caught on the flats. When the first carcass came ashore the next day, it offered opportunities for knowledge and food.

Mahoney, Burek and biologist Geoff York of the U.S. Geological Survey took stomach, skin, blubber and tooth samples. Burek cut open the whale's internal organs and found evidence of inflammation and pneumonia in its lungs.

But it wasn't known whether the condition had been caused by the grounding, she said, or had contributed to its death after it grounded.

The animal had a thick layer of blubber, Mahoney said, and seemed healthy in other respects.

With the help of his wife and some spectators, Joel Blatchford, president of one of two Native hunting groups in the area, then filleted enough muktuk blubber and skin and meat to fill eight large coolers.

''We've distributed some to some of the elders,'' D.J. Blatchford said. ''We've given out to about a dozen people already. ... Some meat will be shipped to White Mountain too. We've got an elder there who is really in need of it.''

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