Alaska’s Bowhead Whales Are MIA, Leaving Eskimos Short of Key Source of Food

Alaska’s Native Whalers       Photo: Ravenna Koenig, Alaska’s Energy Desk via NPR

Alaskan Native tribes began their annual bowhead whale hunt over a month ago, but so far in Utqiagvik the whalers have seen no whales — this is unprecedented — last year at this point in the hunt these Alaskans had already landed 20.  This was the warmest summer ever and there is less ice offshore according to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, which many believe is causing the whales to migrate much farther away from shore.

Why This Matters:  Because of warmer temperatures in the Arctic, fish that used to remain farther south are moving into the region, with big implications for food security in Alaska and beyond.  Native Alaskans, who have been hunting whales using traditional methods for 1,500 years will be severely impacted — they rely on the whales as a major food source, as well as for their cultural heritage.  But worse is what it signals for Alaska and other parts of the Arctic, which are changing at a more rapid rate than other areas of the planet. Alaska is “burning, melting and changing in unprecedented ways,” according to a new report, “Alaska’s Changing Environment,” which describes the state’s wildfires, drought, dwindling sea ice, changes in species, and thawing permafrost.

Bowhead Whale Migration

As Inside Climate News explains, bowhead whale populations are relatively robust and their migration route has been observed routinely by scientists and indigenous hunters.

  • Roughly 17,000 whales migrate west across northern Canada and then along the northern shores of Alaska and then continue westward across the Chukchi Sea to Russia.
  • The later the whales’ migration occurs, the more difficult it becomes due to the shorter days — in just a few weeks’ time “polar night” begins when the sun does not come up over the horizon for two months.
  • The government has been counting bowhead whales since 1979 — the bowhead population had dwindled to around 3000 due to heavy commercial whaling, which became the subject of a nearly global ban in the early 1980’s.
  • This year has been very different according to the scientists — “We just haven’t been seeing bowhead whales in October,” said Megan Ferguson, a research biologist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It’s the big mystery: where are the bowheads?”

What Has Changed? The Temperature

Ocean temperatures in the Arctic are much higher than normal at this time of year, and they are now in the midst of a series of ocean “heatwaves” there, a phenomenon described in the recent UN IPCC report on Oceans and the Cryosphere.

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