WEAPONS IMPROVEMENT PROGRAM
Through the Cooperative Agreement, the AEWC is responsible for ensuring the hunt of the bowhead whale is conducted according to the AEWC Management Plan in a traditional, non-wasteful manner. This work includes ensuring compliance with the IWC requirements to improve and maintain the efficiency and humaneness of the bowhead whale hunt. Co-management of the subsistence harvest of the bowhead whale relies on AEWC fulfilling this mandate and providing harvest data to NOAA on each whale harvested and lost.
In 1986, the IWC instructed the U.S. government and the AEWC to experiment with the use of the modern explosive “penthrite” as a replacement for the traditional black powder explosive used in the hunt in an effort to improve the efficiency and humaneness of the hunt. This mandate was placed on the AEWC with the requirement that the hunters must also continue to utilize traditional weapons in their hunt. To fulfill this mandate, the AEWC formed the AEWC Weapons Improvement Program (WIP) and supervisory WIP Committee. Through the WIP, the AEWC has worked for several years with Dr. Egil Oen, a highly regarded Norwegian veterinarian, and weapons expert, as well as a Norwegian weapons manufacturer on the design, manufacture, and testing of a penthrite projectile for use in the traditional hand-held darting gun utilized in the bowhead subsistence hunt. Additionally, the AEWC, in 2018, began working with Eskimo’s Inc. to begin domestic manufacturing and modification of the pusher shell and darting gun barrels to decrease misfires of the penthrite projectiles. This local control will increase the ability to directly test equipment in Arctic temperatures.
Penthrite is an extremely powerful explosive, with one projectile capable of killing an entire whaling crew if a misfire occurs. The dangers of the projectile are compounded by the requirement to use penthrite with traditional hand-held darting guns, which were originally designed for use with black powder projectiles. Penthrite projectiles were initially developed for use by the commercial whaling industry, which uses modern weapons mounted on large vessels. Adaptation of this powerful explosive for use in traditional subsistence whaling weapons, which were developed in the 1800s and thrown by hand from small boats, has been very expensive.
The AEWC has faced numerous obstacles over the years regarding the commitments made by the. U.S. Government to the IWC to improve the efficiency and humanness of the hunt by attempting to incorporate the penthrite projectile into traditional hunting equipment and practices. In addition to the challenges of designing an appropriate projectile from scratch and making necessary modifications to traditional equipment, the penthrite projectiles cost approximately $1,000 apiece and require shipping procedures that are very expensive due to extensive regulatory requirements that do not apply to black powder. The subsistence hunters bear the burden of this additional expense to meet the U.S. commitment to the IWC. To reduce costs to the whaling villages, AEWC continues to work toward developing a domestic manufacturer. However, the AEWC continues to meet resistance from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) on permitting and licensing requirements for domestic manufacturers of penthrite projectiles.
These obstacles, along with the effect of the extreme Arctic temperatures and inclement weather on equipment, have made the design and implementation process arduous. Most recently, modification and testing of the pusher shell for the penthrite projectile continue to increase safety and reduce the rate of misfires. Although modifications have been made over the years, when misfires occur, the WIP committee investigates the cause, which often relates to the darting gun or pusher shell, and further modifications are required. This funding request does not include the cost of continued modification; however, such modifications are necessary for the continued use of the penthrite Projectiles. Additionally, the use of penthrite requires specialized training, requiring the AEWC to provide ongoing training to the Whaling Captains and their crews.