Subsistence Whaling UnDisrupted by COVID-19, Regional Hunters Successful

Savoonga whale catch, 2016

The annual spring subsistence hunt for whales and other marine mammals is underway in the Bering Strait region. Despite region-wide closures, heavy restrictions, and health concerns all related to the coronavirus pandemic, Alaska Native hunters are continuing their way of life.

Gay Sheffield with Alaska Sea Grant says bowhead whales typically start to move north through the Bering Strait during this month [April] and so far, the marine mammals are right on track.

“In April, things are underway for the northward migration, they’re (the bowhead) not really feeding very heavily during the northward migration.”

As the whales’ usual migration pattern isn’t really being affected by COVID-19, neither is subsistence hunting for the marine mammals in the Bering Strait region.

In an email to KNOM on April 16th, the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission said subsistence hunting during this time of year is not optional, “it is our way of life and how we feed our families and communities.”

However, the AEWC would go on to say they are taking precautions to protect their whalers and keep communities safe during this coronavirus pandemic.

In the Bering Strait region, where several AEWC communities are located– like Gambell, Little Diomede, Savoonga, and Wales; recommended health guidelines are being disseminated for spring hunters. The Norton Sound Health Corporation and Kawerak have jointly encouraged subsistence hunters to limit the number of people involved in all parts of the hunt and food processing, to not share items between crew members, and to follow all community travel restrictions.

So far so good. Instead of hearing about more confirmed COVID-19 cases in the region, news of successful hunts is spreading from community to community.

According to one St. Lawrence Island resident, both Gambell and Savoonga harvested one bowhead whale a piece on Monday [April 27th]. For the “striker” on one of the successful hunts, he got his very first whale this week using a traditional harpoon from his own boat.

As is customary, the successful whaling crews will share the Muktuk, or whale skin and blubber, with their entire family, the local community, and many others.

Image at top: A bowhead whale being towed to shore in Savoonga. Photo courtesy of Brianne Gologergen (2016).