Gray whale harvest on the Kuskokwim stirs up controversy

The whale killed in the Kuskokwim River on Thursday night is butchered and the meat and blubber distributed to people from up and down the river on Saturday, July 29, 2017. (Katie Basile/ KYUK)

On Saturday night, a tired crew of volunteers dragged a large gray whale carcass onto shore near the Napaskiak airport. The whale was gray, bloody and barnacled, and the men who set to work butchering it said that it was at least 37 feet long. Residents are still distributing its blubber and meat, saying that it will feed families throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta for months.

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This concluded two exhausting days of efforts to retrieve the whale, and the way in which hunters killed it in the first place is still generating controversy.

Chris Larson gave ceremonial thanks to his first whale on a black, silty beach near Napaskiak. He gave the whale water to drink, and the crowd that surrounded the carcass went quiet. Then he led the village in the Lord’s Prayer. Larson is an elder and Napaskiak’s honorary tribal chief, and he consulted several people from the coast for advice on the ceremony. This is the first time that anyone can remember a gray whale coming this far up the Kuskokwim River.

“People are hungry,” Larson said. ”The whale will last maybe two months, I don’t know.”

About ten men were slicing thick slabs of white blubber from the whale’s back and placing them on black and blue tarps.

Those getting the meat weren’t sure how they were going to prepare it. One woman laughingly said that she was going to use Crisco.

“I don’t even know,” another said, “I guess we’re gonna google it or something.”

A few people said that they were planning to ask their relatives up the coast for advice.

The elders were given meat first. People started scooping the blubber into white trash bags and fastening them onto the backs of four-wheelers. Boats of local families kept pulling up to shore. The meat was given to community members from Bethel, Akiachak, Tuluksak and Akiak. One woman from Napaskiak said that she didn’t know half the people there. At about 9:00 p.m. on Saturday, Bethel Fire Chief Bill Howell, who also works as a local butcher, arrived with his children and at least six very large knives. He rolled up his sleeves and began carving whale steaks.

The whale was killed Thursday night in a lengthy, brutal encounter and pulled to shore at Napaskiak after two days of tedious work. Its carcass sank to the bottom of the Kuskokwim after it was killed, and Napaskiak Search and Rescue member Joseph Evon took on the job of finding it in 30 feet of water. Search and Rescue crews don’t exactly have the tools for this, so Evon said that he had to improvise.

“Honestly, to be given this task,” Evon said. “I’m pretty dumbfounded… and I have to think outside the box.”

The team welded massive metal hooks out of scrap metal, each about four feet long and two feet wide, and spent hours trawling the river with them, trying to sink the spikes into the whale’s flesh.

On Saturday morning they lucked out. When volunteers boated out to the whale’s location, they found its carcass loose and floating on the river’s surface. Six boats towed it into the shallows, and a man in a loader managed to pull it onto shore.

When the whale was first spotted on Thursday, word spread quickly up and down the river. 40 to 50 boats soon surrounded the animal outside Napaskiak. Men and women in the boats were armed with guns, their grandfathers’ seal harpoons and whatever they had on hand.

“I drove the boat and I drove aggressively because I want part of the muktuk (blubber),” one hunter said. He and his friends asked to remain anonymous because they were concerned about the legal ramifications of their actions. They said that at one point the whale dragged their boat; at another they ran out of gas. Another hunter described shooting a total of 16 different guns into the whale’s body, including an assault rifle, jumping from boat to boat to get a better shot.

“It felt like I was covered in slime and blood,” the hunter said. “There was blood everywhere.

The three hunters KYUK spoke with were devastated when the whale sank. They helped Joseph Evon recover the carcass, and they were there to help butcher it when it was brought to shore.

Video of the hunt was soon posted to Facebook. Some responded with shock on KYUK’s Friday call-in show “Talk Line”. Many who called in felt that what happened was wasteful.

“If we don’t retrieve it, we’re just wanton slaughterers,” one caller said. Another said that, “not every animal that comes up the Kuskokwim river belongs to us.”

The waste of the animal was widely condemned by some on the call-in show and in the extensive discussions that took place on Facebook, but now the meat and blubber have been salvaged.

This does not alter the legal questions surrounding the killing of a gray whale on the Kuskokwim River. Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, said that while a select number of Alaska Native villages are permitted to hunt bowhead whale, “the harvest of other large whale species is not authorized.”

According to Speegle, NOAA is currently reviewing pictures and video from the hunt outside of Napaskiak and may investigate it further.

The legal issues surrounding the taking of the gray whale were not far from the minds of those butchering the animal in Napaskiak on Saturday. Some of the men who were sawing through the whale didn’t want their pictures taken, and most did not want their names on KYUK. Some participated in the hunt; some didn’t. The local controversy and the legal issues surrounding killing the animal have been stressful, but now they say it’s about food.

“This ain’t slaughtering animals,” one person asserted. “This is our food. It’s not slaughtering nothing. Just tell people out there so they can understand.”

“It’s given to us by God,” another man said. ”It’s given to us by our creator. It gave itself to us and our belief is if it’s given to us, take advantage of it.”

“So you know what Yup’ik culture is?” Brenda Carmichael challenged. She’s one of the women helping to butcher the whale. “You tell me what it is. I live my culture. I pass it down to my kids. Who are you to tell me what Yup’ik culture is and isn’t?”

As for Elder Chris Larson, he said he’s proud of what Delta residents accomplished, particularly the men who killed and salvaged the whale together.

“I told them now they’re Nukalpiaq. That is Yup’ik for a man in his prime; a good hunter and provider,” Larson said.