Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) by Alaskan Natives during 2020 and updates on genetics and health studies
Kayla Scheimreif, Robert Suydam, Brian T. Person, Raphaela Stimmelmayr, Todd L. Sformo, Andrew L. Von Duyke, Leandra de Sousa, Rita Acker, Carla SimsKayotuk, Larae Agnasagga, Michael Tuzroyluk, Gay Sheffield, John C. George and Amy Bair
In 2020, 69 bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) were struck during the Alaskan subsistence hunt resulting in 54 animals landed. The total number of whales struck and the number landed in 2020 was higher than the averages for the previous 10 years (2010-2019: mean struck = 56.9, SD = 10.7 and mean landed = 43.4, SD = 7.3; respectively). The efficiency (# landed / # struck) of the hunt (78%) in 2020 was similar to the average over the past 10 years (mean of efficiency = 77%; SD = 7%). Spring hunts are logistically more difficult than autumn hunts because of difficulty in accessing open water, and changing sea ice thickness and dynamics. The hunting efficiency during spring is usually lower than in autumn, which was the case during 2020. In 2020, the efficiency of the spring hunt (73%) was slightly higher than the previous 10 year average (2010-2019; mean spring efficiency = 68%) but lower than the 2020 autumn hunt (92%). The efficiency of the autumn hunt over the past ten years (2010-2019) was 93% (SD = 9%). Fifteen whales were struck and lost in 2020. Of those 15 whales, eight were lost due to equipment malfunction (i.e., float pulled off whale), three whales were lost when they swam under the ice, three whales sank, and one whale could not be found. Of the harvested whales, 22 were females and 32 were males. Based on total length (≥13.7 m in length), seven of the females were presumed mature. One captain reported a whale to be pregnant with a fetus estimated at 1.8-2.1 m long, while another captain reported a whale to be pregnant with a female fetus 4.4 m long. None of those whales were closely examined by biologists for pregnancy primarily because monitoring was suspended in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.