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U.S.-Japan Whale Feud Playing Out in Alaska

Treaty: Nations have fought over quotas. A panel's ban threatens Eskimos' livelihoods.


BARROW, Alaska — It is the season of the midnight sun and still it's snowing. The Arctic Ocean looms up against the shore in chunks of jagged ice, the thermometer has barely reached 26 degrees by noon and the bloody hunks of whale meat George Ahmaogak has just hauled into town have to be thawed before his crew can start slicing into them.

This is the time of year--on the lip between the treacherous Arctic winter and the glorious northern summer--when the bowhead whales push their bulbous heads through the first narrow wedge that opens between the polar ice and the shore ice, creating an eerie symphony of hisses and puffs out in the frozen sea.

Ahmaogak and the other whaling captains climb into their small sealskin umiaqs and paddle out into the ice channels, hoping to plunge their harpoons into the tough skin at the back of the bowhead's brain. The whales thrash and die in the cold sea. Yards and porches all over Barrow fill up with towering piles of meat and bones.

It has been more than a thousand years since the bowhead whale first fed an Eskimo along this stretch of Arctic coast. Such history made this community one of the few in the world legally able to skirt the 16-year-old international moratorium on whaling.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 15 inches; 564 words Type of Material: Correction
Alaska whaling--A June 17 article in Section A stated that Norway and the Solomon Islands had opposed a request by Alaskan Eskimos to renew their hunting quota of bowhead whales. Those countries were not among the 12 that voted against the request.

But that right was stripped away last month by the International Whaling Commission. In a political maneuver orchestrated by Japan--which wants its own exemption for aboriginal whaling--the commission for the first time rejected a quota for Alaskan and Russian Eskimos. The decision threatens the livelihood of thousands of Inupiat residents along Alaska's northern coast, and it sets the stage for a tough diplomatic contest between the U.S. and Japan.

Alaskan whalers have vowed to defy the ban if necessary--a move that could put the U.S. out of compliance with the international whaling treaty it has worked for years to uphold around the world.

"This is what's kept these Eskimos alive for a thousand years--all that blubber," said Ahmaogak, surveying the piles of meat spread across his yard as a dozen men and women methodically sliced, stacked, packaged and boxed it for storage in the permafrost underground. "You ask the elders, and they'd rather die than go without the whale. Without the whale, I don't think the Eskimo will survive."

While Native Americans in Washington state have battled conservationists and engaged in high-profile court fights over their recent attempts to hunt gray whales in the Pacific, Alaska's Eskimos for years have quietly hunted the bowhead.

The international community for the most part has accepted the principle that aboriginal peoples in places such as Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and the Caribbean are entitled to harvest a small number of whales each year for subsistence purposes, carrying on ancient cultural traditions that could be lost without the seasonal hunts.

In the Alaskan Arctic, the bowhead whale--from steaks to organ stews to mikigaq (a gooey, fermented soup of whale skin and tongue considered to be a delicacy)--makes up well over half of many families' diets in a region with few cheap alternatives. With all outside supplies brought in by barge or plane, beef rib steaks cost $7.68 a pound.

"To understand what subsistence is, you have to come up here when it's 70 below and see what it takes to survive in this stuff," said Ahmaogak, who is mayor of the North Slope borough here.

"You have all these people who say, 'I'm a vegetarian,' and they get up here and complain about cold feet and cold hands and we're not even 10 minutes outside the door," he said. "A T-bone steak will only last an hour and a half, and then you're hungry again. This stuff sticks to your ribs for a while."

Under the aboriginal provisions of the international whaling treaty, Alaskan and Siberian Eskimos since 1978 have shared a subsistence quota that, in recent years, has allowed them to harpoon 67 whales a year--mostly in Alaska. Because part of the quota can carry over from one year to the next, this year's limit is 75 whales.

The current five-year authorization expires after this fall's hunt. But when the U.S. moved to renew it at last month's meeting of the whaling commission, the Japanese delegation balked. Approval requires a three-fourths majority of the 48 member countries. The vote fell one short, thanks to Japan winning the support of delegates from Norway, the Solomon Islands, Mongolia and several Caribbean nations.

The real issue was not Alaska whaling, but Japan's long-unsuccessful petition to conduct its own aboriginal whaling of 50 minke whales. (Japan already takes about 560 whales a year for what is described as a scientific program.) The U.S. has been influential in opposing that proposal, saying it is an apparent attempt to conduct commercial whaling under the guise of aboriginal whaling. The move against the Alaska quota, U.S. officials believe, was an attempt at counter-pressure from Japan.

Japan admitted as much.

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