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.

Up Next

Climate Change Causing Birds to Shrink

Climate Change Causing Birds to Shrink

  In September we wrote about a study that revealed that bird populations have declined nearly 30 percent — a loss of 3 billion birds — in the last fifty years. While scientists don’t quite know what’s caused this decline, new evidence shows that in addition to species decline, North American migratory bids have been […]

Continue Reading 413 words
The Makah Tribe Wants to Resume Hunt Whales, NOAA Must Pick a Side in Animal vs. Tribal Rights

The Makah Tribe Wants to Resume Hunt Whales, NOAA Must Pick a Side in Animal vs. Tribal Rights

As the LA Times recently reported, this year, an administrative trial in Washington state could dictate whether the Makah tribe can resume hunting gray whales. The Makah, who live in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula have asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a waiver from the Marine Mammal Protection Act so they can restart their […]

Continue Reading 571 words
One Fun Thing: Almost All Dolphins Are Right Side Dominant

One Fun Thing: Almost All Dolphins Are Right Side Dominant

More than 90 percent of humans are right-handed — and most animals (80%) are similarly right-side dominant. But bottlenose dolphins are almost exclusively right dominant.  According to CNN, scientists conducting research on dolphins observed that dolphins always turn to their left when foraging for food on the seabed.  They thrust their noses or snouts into […]

Continue Reading 125 words