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Where the Caribou Roam
The New Gold Rush
Two Worlds, One Whale
Defending the Forest, and Other Crimes
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Two Worlds, One Whale

Beluga Whales | 1, 2

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 implies.

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 warranted.

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 against jobs.

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 roadside.

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 hunting]."

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 for more information.

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