Amid an economic disaster and food shortage, Savoonga, a community on Saint Lawrence Island, harvested a 57-foot bowhead whale on Friday, the second whale for the community last week.
For eight hours on Friday, Isaac Kulowiyi, President of the Savoonga Whaling Captain Association, says whaling crews fought 13 miles of opposing tides and currents to tow the giant bowhead to land. Then most of Savoonga— men, women, children, and elders— gathered on the beach to help haul the animal ashore.
“Every time Savoonga gets a whale, especially this time of year, it’s a real blessing for the community,” Kulowiyi said. “Everybody gets together and works as one person.”
Kulowiyi says, after dividing the meat among the whaling captains, the captains divided the portions among the crew, and from there, passed the meat throughout the community and then onto Gambell, the other village on the island.
These two whales come amid an island-wide food shortage. After gathering one-third of its yearly walrus harvest, Saint Lawrence Island, declared an economic disaster in August.
Perry Pungowiyi, Alternate Commissioner for the Savoonga Whaling Captain Association, says though not walrus meat, these whales substitute for a sizable portion of this year’s lost subsistence intake. He said this while standing on the beach on Saturday, carving the bowhead.
“This replaced a lot of our walrus meat, and there are a lot of happy stomachs out there,” Pungowiyi said. “It can’t compare with walrus, but these two whales are a substantial portion of what we don’t have in our homes as food.”
Though the whales substitute some of this year’s lost walrus protein, the whales do not replace the walruses’ lost ivory, a important cash source for many of the island’s residents and their families. Kulowiyi says whales are not as profitable as walruses. Besides baleen, the bowheads do not provide much cash opportunity for the community.
Even with the island’s food shortage, both Kulowiyi and Pungowiyi say residents will send parcels of the bowheads to relatives, friends, and former community members on the mainland. Adeline Pungowiyi, office clerk for the Savoonga Whaling Commission, calls this sharing a tradition.
“So we try to share everything with our family that moved out,” Pungowiyi said. “We cannot forget the people who moved from Savoonga. I know they want some. So we continue doing that.”
These whales were Savoonga’s two final strikes of the year, an annual quota set by the Alaska Whaling Commission. The community will have to wait until spring to harvest another one of these animals.