The increased number of bowhead whales struck and taken by the Inupiat of the North Slope of Alaska in the 1970s generated enough concern within the International Whaling Commission (IWC) so as to include aboriginal whaling into their regulating authority for the first time since its establishment in 1946. In 1977, the IWC placed a moratorium on Alaska Eskimo bowhead whaling. Prior to 1977, Eskimo whaling had been allowed due to its subsistence nature and the immense cultural, social, and nutritional value that the bowhead provided for many Inuit groups in Alaska. The Inupiat, indignant with the decision that they considered a violation of the Arctic peoples' basic human rights, quickly acted to overturn the moratorium. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission (AEWC) emerged from this struggle for whale-hunting rights.
Scientists reported to the IWC that the Western Arctic bowhead herd ranged between 600 and 1800 animals. Inupiaq hunters believed this estimate to be too low, but could not convince the IWC otherwise; therefore, in 1977, 70 whaling captains came from nine North Slope villages to Barrow to form the AEWC. A nonprofit organization that drew upon financial resources of the North Slope borough, the AEWC brought their fight to IWC meetings around the world; eventually the Inupiaq hunters were given a small quota for that year.
Nonetheless, the herd population remained a dispute, and so the AEWC cooperated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in which both groups entered into a decade-long census study to prove that the bowhead population ranged in the thousands. Likewise, the IWC and AEWC established an agreement: the Inupiat would adhere to the IWC's quotas and regulate their own members. In return, the IWC would reconsider the size of the bowhead quota if the data warranted. AEWC scientists implemented an acoustic program in which microphones were placed in the open channels under water to record passing bow-heads. Researchers counted many more bowheads than were verified by ice-based counters. Thus, North Slope borough scientists convinced the IWC that the bow-head population was substantially larger than reported numbers to the IWC, and the herd was increasing.
Through AEWC studies and reports, the IWC finally accepted numbers suggesting that the western Arctic bowhead population was 8000 in 1999 and increasing at a rate of 3.1% annually. The Alaska Eskimo bowhead quota subsequently increased to 255 whales over a five-year period.
Today, the AEWC is recognized as an Alaska Inuit-run organization that manages indigenous whaling and determines policy for the ten whaling villages: Gambell, Point Hope, Savoonga, Kaktovik, Nuiqsut, Barrow, Wainwright, Little Diomede, Wales, and Kivalina. The AEWC works to preserve and protect bowhead whales and their habitat, as well as Inuit whaling and culture through a program of regulation, scientific research, and education. Presently, the
AEWC uses its influence and resources to increase whaling opportunities for other Arctic people, including Canadian Inuit and Chukotkan Natives in Russia.
Amber A. Lincoln
See also Alaska Beluga Whale Committee; Bowhead (Greenland Right) Whale; International Whaling
Commission (IWC); Whaling, Subsistence
Hess, Bill, Taking Control: The North Slope Borough, The Story of Self Determination in the Arctic, Barrow: North Slope Borough, 1993
-, Gift of the Whale: Inupiat Bowhead Whale Hunt, A
Sacred Tradition, Seattle: Sasquash Books, 1999
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