The Inupiat and Siberian Yupik Eskimos living in the coastal villages in northern and western Alaska have been hunting the bowhead whale for thousands of years. As the International Whaling Commission (IWC) itself has acknowledged, “Whaling, more than any other activity, fundamentally underlies the total lifeway of these communities.”
The entire community participates in the activities surrounding the subsistence bowhead whale hunt, ensuring that the traditions and skills of the past associated with their culture will be carried on by future generations. Each whale provides thousands of pounds of meat and maktak, which is shared by all the people in the community. Portions of each whale are saved for celebration at Nalukataq (the blanket toss or whaling feast), Thanksgiving, Christmas, and potlucks held throughout the year.
IWC was established by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in 1946. For many years, the IWC focused only on the regulation of commercial whaling activities. During this time, there was no commercial exploitation of the bowhead whale; the Yankee and British whaling operations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had substantially reduced the size of the stock. However, in the early 1970’s, as opposition to commercial whaling operations started to grow, some countries raised concerns about the status of the Bering Sea stock of bowhead whales and the Eskimos’ subsistence harvest of this stock.
The Eskimos were not made aware of this international interest. In 1977, the IWC extended its regulation to aboriginal subsistence takes of bowhead whales and immediately imposed a ban on the harvest of bowhead whales by Alaska Eskimos. This was the result of a report erroneously estimating the Bering Sea stock of bowheads to have between 600 and 2,000 whales. The Eskimos hunters learned of this action after the fact. Had they been asked, the Eskimos would have informed the IWC that there were at least 4,000 bowhead whales in the population.
AEWC In 1977, as a result of the ban, Eskimo whalers established the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) to represent the whaling communities in an effort to convince the United States Government and the IWC to take action to preserve the Eskimos subsistence hunt of bowhead whales. Since 1977, representatives of the AEWC have attended every annual meeting of the IWC, providing scientific research on the bowhead whale conducted through the efforts of the AEWC, the North Slope Borough and NOAA. State-of-the-art research methods are the foundation for management of this hunt. The hunters have devoted many years of research and development to upgrades of their traditional hand-held weapons, to ensure the safest, most efficient, and most humane hunt possible. The IWC has accepted the quantitative method used for establishing and updating Alaska Native Aboriginal subsistence need for bowhead whales.
Since 1981, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission has managed the bowhead whale subsistence hunt locally through a Cooperative Agreement with the United States Department of Commerce/NOAA. The AEWC works closely with NOAA throughout the year and reports to NOAA on the results of each spring and fall whaling season.
Since 1981, AEWC has demonstrated the effectivenss of cooperative managment. The subsistence whalers are proud of their record of sound management, of supporting research, and of improving the equipment used in the traditional whale hunt. The original ban on the bowhead whale subsistence hunt was lifted in favor of a very low quota, which resulted in years of food shortages in the AEWC’s villages. Better methods for estimating the population have helped secure an increased quota closer to the actual need of the whaling communities as established through documentation of historic use.
As an Inupiat subsistence hunter, I have a responsibility to feed my family, provide for my community, preserve our culture, and protect our resources. That is my role as a hunter and provider.
As the Chairman for the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, I have a responsibility to all of the communities along the Arctic coast of Alaska who rely on the bowhead whale for their survival. The traditional hunt is woven into the fiber of our culture just as the harvest is integral to the sustenance of our people. My responsibility is to advocate for the aboriginal subsistence rights of the Inupiat and Yupik people and the ensure the protection of the bowhead whale habitat.
The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commissions' bowhead whale harvest quota is determined
by the International Whaling Commission every six years.
The AEWC Board of Commissioners consists of a representative whaling captain from each of the 11 whaling villages that comprise the organization.
The AEWC is a non-profit 501c3 Alaska Native Organization. Work toward accomplishing the mission is funded through government and foundation grants, as well as through private donations.