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Subsistence harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) taken by Alaskan Natives, 1974 to 2016

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Robert S. Suydam and John C. George

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International Whaling Commission


The harvest of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) from the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort seas stock by Alaskan Natives helps fill important nutritional and cultural needs for communities along the northern and western coasts of Alaska. In 1977, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned hunting of bowheads because of the low population estimate of bowheads, increased number of strikes, and the increased number of hunting crews. A quota system was implemented in 1978 by the IWC. The quota is set at a level to allow the bowhead population to increase while still allowing Alaskan Natives to meet subsistence and cultural needs. Data on harvested whales have been collected since the mid-1970s. Between 1974 and 2016, hunters from 12 villages in Alaska, extending from the Bering Sea to the eastern Alaskan Beaufort Sea, harvested 1,373 whales. Hunters at Barrow landed the most whales (n=700) while Shaktoolik only landed one and Little Diomede landed two. The efficiency (# of whales landed/# of whales struck) of the hunt has increased markedly over this period. Currently the efficiency is about 0.80. Some villages hunt only in the spring, some only in the autumn, while Barrow, Wainwright, and the Saint Lawrence Island villages (Gambell and Savoonga) hunt in both the spring and autumn/winter. The average size of whales differs among the villages. Gambell, Savoonga, and Wainwright harvest larger whales than do Point Hope and Barrow. It is not clear whether these differences are due to hunter selectivity, whale availability, or both. The size of landed whales changes during the migration in at least some villages. During the spring, larger whales tend to be taken more frequently near the end of the migration. The opposite is true for the autumn whereby larger whales tend to be taken early while small whales tend to be taken later. Overall, the sex ratio is equal. Generally, males and females do not appear to segregate during the spring or autumn migration However, large females tend to be more common in late May at Barrow.

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