Whalers in Utqiaġvik can’t remember hunting this late without landing a bowhead

Three bowhead whales swim in the Beaufort Sea in July, 2019. (Photo by Kate Pagan / National Marine Fisheries Service)

Each fall, captains from Alaska’s northernmost community, Utqiaġvik, drive their powerboats 10 to 20 miles offshore to hunt whales. And usually, by this point in the season, successful crews have towed dead bowheads back to town, divided up the meat and shared it with friends and family, who eat it through the winter until the whales return on their spring migration.

But this year, a month into the fall hunt in Utqiaġvik, the bowheads still haven’t shown up.

Whaling crews have not landed a single one, which some residents say is unprecedented for a town that last fall captured nearly 20. And federal scientists say their airborne surveys have shown bowheads much farther offshore than their usual range.

Also unprecedented are this year’s temperatures: It was the warmest May through September on record in Utqiaġvik, and there’s never been less ice offshore in the combined Chukchi and Beaufort seas at this point in the year, according to Rick Thoman, a climatologist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. And some in the village think the environmental changes are connected to the whales’ behavior.

“This is a very important food source to us, and we have nothing to date,” said Eugene Brower, a retired whaling captain with a son who’s been hunting bowheads “constantly,” without success.

“We’re being heavily impacted up this way,” Brower said. “This is the first time we ever encountered a season with no whales being sighted.”

Last fall, Utqiaġvik’s whalers landed 19 bowheads by Oct. 23; this year’s fall harvest opened Sept. 21, and none have been captured since then.

Crews were still on the water Thursday, though, and some experts said there’s still time left in the season.

“It is not unusual for Barrow whalers to be hunting into the month of November,” Arnold Brower, executive director of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, said in an email, using the old name for the town before it was changed in 2016. He added: “Patience is usually the best strategy.”

Utqiagvik whalers stand on the ice during this year’s spring hunt, which still uses many traditional tools, including the sealskin boat, or umiak. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

The bowhead whale hunt is an essential cultural and subsistence tradition for the Inupiat of Alaska’s North Slope. It dates back at least 1,500 years, and annual harvests can supply families with hundreds of pounds of meat. There are several dozen crews in Utqiagvik.

Other North Slope villages have had successful hunts this fall, east of Utqiaġvik in Kaktovik and Nuiqsut. But whalers haven’t even been spotting bowheads near Utqiaġvik, said Brower, a former president of the Barrow Whaling Captains Association.

“It is the way of our life, and it’s why we are who we are,” said Deano Olemaun, a top official at the North Slope Borough.

“They spotted some gray whales out there,” he said. “But no bowhead.”

The whalers’ experiences align with those of federal scientists, who flew in small planes this summer and fall doing aerial surveys of the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

Megan Ferguson, a National Marine Fisheries Service research biologist, spent up to five hours at a time in the air, plotting whale sightings on a chart, as the plane flew in long lines about 20 miles apart, as far as 150 miles offshore.

Near Kaktovik, where whalers were successful, bowheads were observed farther offshore than in typical years. But there were also still “a good number of whales,” close to shore, Ferguson said.

But as the flights started moving west of Kaktovik, toward Utqiaġvik, “everything was shocking,” she said. The whales were far offshore compared to where scientists usually see them.

A chart from Ferguson’s research shows how bowhead spottings during surveys this October (the green squares) were farther offshore than most of the other bowhead spottings from October surveys dating back to 1982 (the purple circles). (Graphic courtesy NOAA/BOEM)

“Having the map right in front of me, it was pretty striking,” Ferguson said. She added: “We don’t have anything close to shore.”

The change comes as the region experiences “unprecedented” environmental conditions, said Thoman, the climatologist.

“There’s no doubt that the ocean climate has never been like this, that we know of,” he said.

This year, Utqiaġvik had its longest-ever recorded stretch, 85 days, with temperatures staying above freezing. Water temperatures north of the village are the warmest on record for this time of year, Thoman said.

North Slope Borough wildlife biologist Craig George on the ice near Utqiaġvik during a bowhead whale census this spring. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

But up until this fall, the bowheads’ migration past Utqiaġvik had been relatively steady in spite of the dramatic environmental changes happening in the area, said Craig George, a longtime North Slope Borough wildlife biologist. The spring migration has been trending earlier, but the fall harvest has been relatively stable until this year, he said.

“It’s pretty abrupt,” he said.

Whalers and scientists both said the bowheads’ location might have to do with where they’re finding their food, plankton. Whalers also said the winds have kicked up waves that have made bowheads more difficult to spot.

Another hypothesis is that the water closer to shore is warmer than the whales can tolerate, so they’ve moved farther offshore.

George, the borough biologist, said he’s perplexed and concerned by the change. But he also said it appears that this year was a strong one for bowhead calves, which is generally a good indicator of the species’ overall health.

One thing that’s clear to Brower, the retired whaler, is that unless things turn around, there won’t be a lot of whale meat stored away in Utqiaġvik this winter.

“Whatever muktuk you’ve got, whale meat, that’s going to be scarce,” he said. “It’s going to be a commodity that’s going to be hard to get.”