Peter Matthiessen wrote in Survival of the Hunter about conflicts between
Greenland's Inuit hunters and anti-whaling environmentalists. At a whaling camp, his host
sang a song about auks that had to fly south without their young, because jaegers and
gulls had eaten the eggs. "We children cried and cried for those little auks,"
the singer added, "because we were afraid we would not get any to eat." That,
Matthiessen saw, was the answer from traditional societies to those of us who never have
to wonder where our next meal will come from "and to whom it may never have occurred
that the traditional hunter 'loves' the hunted creature more than they do, without the
smallest trace of sentimentality, because it is not separate from his own existence."
During an "open mike" period, we heard hunters' concerns about degraded whale
habitat and sick whales that might be poisoned by radioactivity or chemicals. We heard
that the problem, if there was one, wasn't hunting but sewers or oil drilling or
commercial fishing. One conservationist asked the hunters if they wouldn't consider,
instead of hunting, taking out paying tourists on whale-watching excursions. Feet shifted.
Heads were lowered. I knew what was coming because I'd heard it before, the uneasiness of
subsistence users with other people "looking at our food." "People want to
love our food to death," one of the hunters said. Within his culture, to bother
whales for no good reason was without justification, in the same way that
catch-and-release fishing was without justification. Such activities offended the animals,
which did not exist to be toyed with. If you don't need to eat the animal, he suggested,
just leave it alone.
At least we were spared the "animal defenders" who were opposed to all whale
hunting, like those who attempted to disrupt the resumption of traditional gray whale
hunting by the Makah Indians of Washington State. The eight or nine conservation groups,
including the Sierra Club, that have involved themselves in the Cook Inlet beluga issue
all support subsistence hunting by Alaska's Natives -- as long as the hunting is at
sustainable levels. A main reason to have a healthy and stable population of whales in the
inlet is to be able to continue traditional hunting, with all the cultural worth that
Alaska conservationists have long viewed Natives, with their direct dependence on
resources, as either actual or potential allies in support of clean water, protected
habitat, and other front-line conservation causes. Conservation groups concerned about
water quality, oil-lease sales, and reports of jet-skiers near belugas wondered if there
weren't a solution that would safeguard both belugas and Native use of belugas.
In the spring of 1999, fearful of another year of unregulated hunting and threats to
the Cook Inlet belugas from oil-and-gas and other development projects, a coalition of
conservation organizations and one former whaler filed a formal petition with NMFS. (The
former whaler is an Inupiat who grew up in Anchorage and stopped hunting because of his
concern about the continued survival of the Cook Inlet whales.) The petitioners asked the
agency to use its emergency powers to list the whales as endangered and to begin the
process of making that emergency listing permanent.
The petition stated, "The ESA
requires that a population be listed as endangered when it faces the threat of extinction
from overutilization, when existing regulatory mechanisms are inadequate, when its habitat
is threatened, when it is vulnerable to disease or predation, and when there are other
man-made factors affecting its continued existence. Each of these factors is affecting
Cook Inlet beluga whales." The agency declined to act on an emergency basis, and the clock started on the one year
it had, once petitioned, to find whether an endangered or threatened listing was
As the summer of 1999 approached, Cook Inlet hunters who had participated in the
information exchange voluntarily agreed to "stand down" for the season, to await
that year's count and further discussions over how future hunts might be conducted. In
Congress, Alaska's Senator Ted Stevens (R) put through a bill that prohibits the hunting
of Cook Inlet belugas for two years except as provided for in an agreement between NMFS
and hunters. Senator Stevens made it clear he was principally interested in avoiding an
ESA listing, which he and others feared could disrupt Cook Inlet's industrial development.
"Inlet-related industries true endangered species" headed a newspaper column
written by the director of the Alaska Resource Development Council.
(Many conservationists opposed the alternative to ESA listing, a designation of
depletion under the MMPA, believing that even if overhunting was the primary issue, other
"anthropogenic" factors such as pollution and habitat disturbance could be
contributing to the decline or, at a minimum, could make it difficult for the population
to recover. Only the ESA, with its requirement for critical habitat designation, could
assure that attention was paid to all threats.)
Last summer, the belugas gathered in the upper inlet, and the June aerial survey (in
which some Native hunters participated) found approximately the same number of whales as
the previous year. No hunting was known to take place. Then in late August more than 60
belugas stranded on a tidal flat, and at least five died-an example of just how vulnerable
the remaining whales are to factors beyond human control. The good news was that three of
the whales washed up in areas where they could be both scientifically sampled and salvaged
by Natives hungry for muktuk. The newspaper quoted a woman who helped butcher the whales
and then drove around Anchorage distributing one-gallon plastic bags of blubber: "I
was like Santa Claus today. A lot of the elderly people I brought it to just cried,"
she said. "An elderly guy waited two hours outside his house for me to come. He
wanted it that bad."
Plodding along in its bureaucratic way, NMFS announced in October that it had completed
its status review and was proposing that the Cook Inlet stock be considered depleted. But
an actual depletion designation would only follow further review, consideration, and
possible appeal. So this May the environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, on behalf of
the coalition of conservation groups and former beluga hunter Joel Blatchford, filed suit
against NMFS, saying it had failed to respond within one year to the ESA petition:
"Any further delay in your response to the petition frustrates the intent of the ESA,
because extirpation of this species may occur due to any number of threats."
"We have to sue them to get them to do their job," says Peter Van Tuyn,
litigation director for Trustees for Alaska. Whether slow, timid, or politically
constrained, he says, the agency prefers to wait for someone else to step in and be
"the bad guy"-a pattern Van Tuyn has encountered repeatedly with NMFS. The
result is that issues aren't addressed in a timely manner, and end up as high-profile,
finger-pointing, polarized crises that pit protectors against users and conservation
Driving to Anchorage, I stopped at a rest area along Cook Inlet's Turnagain Arm. Just
20 miles south of Anchorage, the pulloff, known as Beluga Point, is a favorite of both old
Alaskans and wide-eyed tourists, who all delight in being able to spot belugas from the
While I watched for whales I pondered a PBS McLaughlin Report I'd seen, in which the
host had asked, in response to the killing of a gray whale by Makah Indians, "For a
liberal, which is more PC-Native rights or the defense of whales?" The answer, from
the "liberal" panelist Clarence Page, was, "We shouldn't be killing
whales-we should be studying them." (He also said that he wouldn't tell the Makahs
what they should do.) The Makah whaling situation is very different from that of Cook
Inlet, but both provide a test of the kind McLaughlin posed-how non-Natives feel about
Native people continuing (or resuming) traditional activities that involve killing animals
("intelligent" whales, "cute" baby seals) we've invested with greater
value than, for example, catfish or steers. The Makah culture originally developed around
whaling in the same way that other Northwest cultures developed around salmon fishing.
When the Makahs stopped whaling in the 1920s it was because commercial whalers, harpooning
all they could find, had nearly driven the gray whales to extinction. Since then,
international conservation efforts have brought the Pacific gray whale population back to
an estimated 23,000-a number possibly as great as it ever has been and perhaps nearing the
carrying capacity of the food supply. The gray whale was removed from the endangered
species list in 1994, and a small subsistence take is not going to harm the species.
I thought again of little auks and the children who cried for them. Who, in any of
these Native whaling situations, has most to lose? Who has the greatest love? And I
thought of the Makah Indian who came to an Anchorage beluga meeting and spoke to the
hunters: "The non-Indian people don't want to understand where you're coming
from," he warned. "You'll lose and lose and pretty soon you won't be able to do
anything." Peter Merryman, chief of the village of Tyonek, told USA Today: "Our
young men, they'll probably go on to the white man's ways and forget about it [beluga
At Beluga Point, I studied the water, some of it riffled with white caps, through
binoculars. I saw mudflats and sandbars, eagles and gulls, mountains across the way still
draped in snow. Along the shoreline not far off, people dip-netted for hooligan, an oily
spring fish. Cook Inlet's belugas typically follow the hooligan runs into the northern
inlet to feed on them, and then salmon, throughout the summer.
The absence of the whales felt like a great, gaping hole in the fabric of the Alaska I
knew and loved. Aside from whatever selfish pleasure any of us takes in living beside
them, and aside from their important role in Native culture, the Cook Inlet belugas have
their own inherent value in the place they've inhabited exclusively for thousands of
years. They belong to the world, and the world without them would be deeply impoverished.
I imagine a future time when someone stops at Beluga Point and wonders why it's called
that-or doesn't wonder, doesn't even think, in the way that we don't think about where all
those Salmon Rivers, Bear Creeks, and Eagle Bluffs that dot our nation's maps came from.
The idea of such a future breaks my heart.
I can imagine another future, though-one in which individual and collective
responsibility rises to the challenge. With a continued hunting moratorium or a very, very
limited and carefully managed subsistence hunt, the numbers of Cook Inlet belugas might be
stabilized and, slowly, rebuilt. Eventually, a restored population might support a larger
(but never again large or unrestricted) hunt, with all its cultural richness.
Hunting is not the only human activity that harms whales, however. We need to assure
them clean water and adequate food, the integrity of a complex, healthful ecosystem. We
might learn how to do that together, drawing upon the knowledge and wisdom of every bit of
experience, education, and heritage.
It's possible -- I want to believe -- that half a million people can live beside whales
without destroying them. It's also possible -- and I do believe -- that the many teachings of
our many "tribes" can, if respected and shared, help us all to better understand
and care for the world and its creatures.
Nancy Lord is a frequent contributor to Sierra. Her most recent book is Green
Alaska: Dreams From the Far Coast (Counterpoint Press, 1999). She is working on a book
about the Cook Inlet belugas.
(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.