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Sierra Magazine
Two Worlds, One Whale

The belugas of Alaska's Cook Inlet are the victims of a cultural divide between science and tradition.

By Nancy Lord

A decade ago I watched a dead beluga whale, an adult male 14 feet long, deconstruct on a beach in Cook Inlet, Alaska. I accepted the scene as a process of nature, and was intrigued by the passage of time and the parade of scavengers, including bears, that reduced a giant among animals to scattered bones and a grease slick. That summer, like every summer since I'd begun fishing there in the 1970s, large pods of belugas-sometimes hundreds-routinely passed our camp, so close to shore we could clearly see the white arcs of their backs and hear their poofing breaths.

Belugas are not whales that people fret about disappearing. About 100,000 inhabit northern circumpolar waters in at least 29 separate stocks, with the largest concentration in Canada's Hudson Bay. Five stocks live along Alaska's coast; only the smallest, that of Cook Inlet, is geographically isolated and is not thought to intermingle with any other stock. (Elsewhere, the isolated belugas of eastern Canada's St. Lawrence Estuary are imperiled by chemical pollution, while the status of those in Russia's Anadyr Bay is unknown.)

Belugas had always been one of the riches of my Alaskan environment, and I always assumed they would remain so. After all, belugas fall under the aegis of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and even though the act allows for a subsistence take by Native hunters, it was my understanding that few Natives hunted Cook Inlet's belugas anymore. The region, dominated by Anchorage at the head of the inlet, was becoming increasingly modernized, and only the Native village of Tyonek maintained a subsistence economy that still included an occasional beluga. The population of the white whales, although not large, was considered healthy and stable.

But by the late 1990s, the situation had changed dramatically. In 1998, the only beluga I saw from my fishing camp was a dead one floating past on the tide, and in 1999 I saw none at all. Today, the entire population of Cook Inlet beluga whales has shrunk from an estimated 1,000 at the beginning of the decade to approximately 350.

In systematic overflight surveys between 1994 and 1999, researchers counted fewer and fewer Cook Inlet belugas. Harvest data from Native hunters indicated that something on the order of 70 whales per year were being killed, a take many times greater than what was sustainable. At such a rate of decline, the Cook Inlet belugas would be extinct in another decade. Yet only in 1998 did the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, pronounced "nymphs"), in charge of managing Alaska's beluga whales, sound the alarm.

How did this happen? If the cause of the decline was something as clearly lethal as hunting, why was hunting allowed to continue? Answers lie in the details of our federal laws, in government inertia, and, ironically enough, in the urbanization of Alaska's Natives.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Native hunting is broadly guaranteed, with only a general provision that the take "not be wasteful." The NMFS cannot regulate hunting unless it first finds that the hunted species or population is "depleted," defined as a 50 percent reduction, or "threatened" or "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act. To take action under either law, the agency needed solid, defensible numbers, so in 1993 NMFS designated the Cook Inlet beluga as a "candidate species" for the ESA and undertook a program of surveys and data collection.

The politics of the situation were thorny. Hunting by Alaska Natives had never before resulted in a recognized depletion and would be an acute embarrassment for Native stewardship. The thought of adding belugas to the ESA list, in a state dominated by oil and other development interests and whose congressional delegation would just as happily eliminate the ESA, left regulators shaking.

While the Cook Inlet beluga population was probably never very large, it has provided for the Native people of the region for as long as anyone knows, well back into the archaeological record. And it has for many years survived alongside commercial fisheries, oil-and-gas production, boat and barge traffic, even a couple of efforts in the 1920s and 1930s at commercial whaling (for whale oil and glove leather). Today two-thirds of Alaska's human population, some 400,000 people, share the Cook Inlet watershed-an area roughly the size of Virginia-with the resident white whales. That's 400,000 people concentrated in an area that, before European contact a mere two centuries ago, probably never supported more than 5,000. Today approximately 20,000 Alaska Natives live in Anchorage, sometimes half-jokingly referred to as "Alaska's largest Native village."

Only a portion of these are Athabascan Indians whose ancestors inhabited the area. Many more moved to Anchorage in the last generation or two from other parts of the state. Among them are Yupik and Inupiat Eskimos from the west and north, people with strong whale-hunting traditions. Once in Anchorage, Native people generally continue their ways of hunting, gathering, sharing, and eating "Native food," including beluga muktuk (the layer of skin and fat, from the Inupiaq word maktak). Whale hunters find the Cook Inlet belugas relatively easy to hunt; the whales spend May to October in shallow water just a short skiff ride from the Anchorage port. Sometimes hunters send muktuk home to their village relatives. Sometimes their relatives and friends come to Anchorage, and they all go hunting together.

Getting and sharing food, even in urban Alaska, even in the 21st century, is central to Native culture. Food is in many ways the currency of a subsistence economy, its gathering and preparing the work that people do. Salmon, caribou, seal, berries, clams, duck, wild celery-these foods still, throughout Alaska, make up a sizeable portion of most Natives' diets. When Native people travel, they carry packages of dried fish, walrus meat, or herring eggs. They share their gifts. For a long time, until health regulators stopped the practice, the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage served its patients wild foods, including moose and seal meat and beluga muktuk. People like foods they're accustomed to, but, more importantly, Native people know they are, in a very real sense, the foods they eat.

Beginning in the early 1990s, it became apparent that increasing numbers of Eskimo hunters were harvesting increasing numbers of Cook Inlet belugas for their own use and, as broadly provided for under the MMPA, for "trade and barter." This provision, meant to accommodate exchange in a village situation, created a large loophole that encompasses the legal (sometimes expressed as "not illegal") sale of beluga muktuk. Some Native hunters were in fact engaged in commercial whaling-selling the muktuk of Cook Inlet belugas to others.

The numbers compiled by NMFS estimated Cook Inlet beluga kills at 68 in 1995, 123 in 1996, 70 in 1997, and 79 in 1998. These included reported harvests plus an estimate of whales thought to have been "struck and lost." Other factors may also affect the health, movements, and survival of Cook Inlet belugas-oil-and-gas activity, commercial and sportfishing, food availability, boat traffic, habitat disturbance, pollution-but the estimated kill by hunters fully accounts for the population decline.

Tribal restraints, in villages where everyone knows one another, were clearly not operable in Anchorage. Other than individual hunters deciding not to hunt-which some, concerned about the decline, did-no limiting mechanisms were in place.

In 1998, NMFS called for a status review of the Cook Inlet beluga, following which it would determine whether a listing under either the MMPA or ESA was warranted. That would take time. Meanwhile, another season of high harvest would, at best, mean that the belugas' recovery would take years longer. At worst, it would drop the numbers too low to ever recover. In the short term, voluntary measures to reduce or halt hunting would have to come from the hunters themselves.

In a windowless hotel conference room, before a primarily Native audience, NMFS researchers laid out their science. From a back corner, I listened to the reports and studied the overhead charts. The surveys, with all the carefully worked out, high-tech methodology for determining both best-guess numbers and range of reliability. The genetics, establishing that there was no interbreeding of the Cook Inlet whales with other stocks. A report on distribution, which showed that, in summer months, the entire population held together in estuaries at the head of Cook Inlet, adjacent to Anchorage; the whales were no longer roaming widely through the inlet. It was crystal clear that here was a population in rapid decline, a population that would not be replenished from anywhere else, a population that had reduced its range to the very area where it was most vulnerable to hunting.

Clear to me, anyway. But at this and subsequent meetings about the Cook Inlet belugas, I witnessed, among other things, a cultural divide over trust, belief, and the meaning of stewardship.

Alaska's Natives, with a long history of being done-to by white people and government agencies, are today newly empowered by the business resources of (sometimes very large) regional and village corporations; by federal recognition of tribal authority, subsistence rights, and a right to co-manage marine mammals; and by their pride of heritage and identity. Where they used to fall silent under government decree, they now speak up, question, demand. And still, they're frustrated. They're worn down by battles over subsistence use and self-determination, by all the chippings away of cultural worth. Losing the right to freely hunt beluga whales in Cook Inlet was going to be one more thing, one more loss of who they were and what they valued. It was not, for many of them, something they could easily accept.

What I heard at meetings from both Cook Inlet Native hunters and tribal leaders was tremendous resistance: "I don't think there's a decline. I'm out there. I see the whales." "These whales don't stay in the inlet. They follow the fish." "How do you know how many whales is the right number to have, anyway?" They didn't like the government numbers-didn't believe them, didn't trust them. Yet, how could they do more than deny them when they didn't have the same resources to get information, to rent airplanes for surveys, to follow their own hunches? They had cooperated to provide harvest numbers; now, as many saw it, those numbers were being used against them.

Fighting my own dismay at what looked to me like a refusal to face facts, I listened for subtexts. As speakers struggled with the English that was for many a second language, I could hear the grasping after words and concepts, the translating of Native thought into a language the rest of us might understand, the frustration when understanding fell short. I knew I wasn't always "getting" what was being said, or meant, and I suspected the same failure was occurring all through the room.

In the midst of a discussion about aerial counts and methodology, for example, one tribal leader asked, aggressively, "How many beluga are needed to feed a family?" It was a question that might have been dismissed as entirely off the subject, except for what it implied about traditional use. In a land where a failed salmon run or a late migration of caribou could mean starvation, meeting a family's and community's food needs was the first order of business. Waste was not abided, but use was expected, even required. A traditional belief among Cook Inlet Athabascans is that if a plant is harvested and its unused parts respectfully returned to the earth, the plant will grow in greater numbers, but if the plant is not used, its numbers will diminish.

Historically, an ethic of "take what you need" and "share what you have" has served small, subsistence-based communities well. Elders and community pressure discouraged waste and misuse, and those who behaved badly faced sanctions. Sometimes people starved, sometimes they moved to new locations; both reset the balance with food supplies. This system isn't followed as exactly as it once was, but the underlying attitude is still profoundly present in today's Native cultures. Food, if offered, is meant to be eaten. It's meant to be shared. If treated with respect, it will continue to provide. To think about limiting your take not because you have enough, but because there may not be enough, is a radical shift in perspective.

Beluga Whales | 1, 2


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