The role of the whale

Now on display, this watercolor by Point Hope artist Ken Lisbourne shows the spirit of cooperation and the roles of different family members during the bowhead whale harvest. The Iñupiaq have hunted the bowhead for thousands of years and continue to today. 

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

In 1977, growing international concerns for whale populations, and overexploitation generally, led the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to institute a moratorium on bowhead hunting, even by Alaska’s Indigenous communities. A quota was imposed on their subsistence hunt after 1978, and an intensive research program was launched to study the Alaskan BCB stock of bowhead whales. Four decades of collaboration between researchers and BCB management are now celebrated as an effective example of respecting the needs of local people to harvest bowheads, while conserving the species via sustainable quotas. Currently the IWC quota allows 56 BCB whales per year to be harvested. The full quota is not often reached, and the average take is about 45 whales a year or less than 0.5% of today’s growing population.

Since the 1977 initiatives by the IWC, studies of bowhead whales have reached numerous milestones of deeper understanding. While we cannot predict all the changes to expect in the Arctic, the bowhead whale has proven to be a robust species by adapting to marked climate changes over the past four million years. We hope that the Indigenous peoples’ reliance on this animal will endure. Continued research and population monitoring can guide management decisions that will mitigate threats to the species and the people who depend on them.

Planet Earth is now perceived to be undergoing significant climate change, especially in the Arctic. Bowheads face new threats due to warming and sea ice retreat. Locations of food sources are changing, prey species are being replaced by others, predators are moving north, and diseases previously unknown are appearing. Human uses of the Arctic such as shipping, fishing, mining and petroleum extraction are all increasing. All the bowhead whale population stocks face threats.

The Okhotsk Sea stock is the southernmost and smallest of the extant stocks of bowheads. That stock is confined to a warming sea, is surrounded by relatively dense human populations, so it faces several threats simultaneously, and warrants particularly careful monitoring and protections.

Bowhead research may also contribute to solving problems far beyond the Arctic. The bowhead’s genome is being explored in depth, which may yield clues to the great age and cancer-resistance of the species — potentially useful breakthroughs for human health. Research on bowhead communication, and interpretation of their complex songs remain to be accomplished. Future scientists will be challenged to understand these vocalizations, physiology, Indigenous sharing networks and many other questions concerning bowheads.

This fascinating animal has sustained some Arctic coastal societies for up to two millennia. Its attraction of an outstanding, dedicated and active research community dates back to the early 1960s. The Iñupiat essentially view agviq as their spirit animal, providing food and uniting their people.

The bowhead is indeed a remarkable species, as Charles Darwin succinctly declared it 100 years earlier in 1859, “ ... one of the most wonderful animals in the world ... ”

J.C. “Craig” George, Ph.D., recently retired as a research biologist with the North Slope Borough’s Department of Wildlife Management in Utqiagvik. J.G.M. “Hans” Thewissen, Ph.D., is on the faculty of the Northeast Ohio Medical University in Rootstown, Ohio.