UPDATE: This story has been updated to include new salmon counts and the fact the whale was pulled out of the river and butchered. The meat was described as tasty.
When a gray whale gets lost and wanders 30 miles up a river in Western Alaska, it gets a whole different reception than when one strays into a California waterway.
A gray whale that showed up in the Klamath River in 2011 became the subject of national attention and a big effort to guide her back to the sea. She didn’t make it and died after 54 days in freshwater. The Yurok Indian Tribe held a ceremony to bury the 45-foot marine mammal that had become known as Sandy, the Medford Mail Tribune reported after the whale’s death.
The whale that showed up in the Kuskowim River downstream from Bethel earlier this week didn’t have to wait 54 days to die, and it won’t be buried. Bethel is a regional hub about 400 miles west of Anchorage, and many who live in the surrounding area depend on what Alaskans call the “subsistence lifestyle.”
They saw the whale in simple terms: food.
A mob of 30 to 40 outboard-powered skiffs filled with people armed with spears, firearms and who knows what else quickly descended on the whale.
“Locals had little experience hunting an animal this big,” reported public radio station KYUK, which posted a video of the hunt and the kill with the warning it “may be disturbing for some viewers.”
There are no published reports of previous gray whale hunts upriver on the Kuskokwim. And with inexperienced hunters leading the way, this harvest proved a little messy.
“Men and women surrounded the whale with 30 to 40 boats and struggled to kill it using guns, seal harpoons, and whatever they had on hand. It took them around 90 minutes to kill the whale,” the radio station reported.
In the video, people can be seen repeatedly shooting the whale and sticking it with harpoons, or throwing those at it, before the animal dies and sinks.
The whale was eventually recovered, said Hugh Dyment, a former Bethel mayor. Villagers in Napasiak got hooks in it and pulled it ashore to be butchered.
“A lot of folks went down (river) from Bethel to help,” Dyment said. The meat was widely distributed. Dyment was one of the beneficiaries.
“I never had (gray whale) before,” he said. “The muktuk is different than bowhead, which has this sweet taste. But it’s very good. It melts in your mouth.”
That said, he added, that there is considerable debate locally about how the hunt went down. Unfortunately, he said, it didn’t appear any Bethel-area hunters familiar with beluga-whale hunting along the coast were on hand to offer advice when the gray whale hunt started.
“There is debate and disagreement here,” he said. “There are people on all sides of all ethnicities” discussing whether the rather gruesome kill couldn’t have been done more humanely.
Bethel residents are unfamiliar with hunting gray whales, although they do harvest the occasional beluga in the Kusko and four years ago a walrus. A beluga weighs about 3,000 pounds.
Mature gray whales weigh 30 to 40 tons. After the removal of bones and organs, such an animal might be expected to produce up to 40,000 pounds of meat. A local elder expected the dead whale to help feed many in the small village of Napasiak.
“The legal implications of this event are not yet known,” KYUK reported. Gray whales are a legally protected species in the U.S.
The Makah Indian Tribe in Washington state has been trying for 15 years to get legal authority from the federal government to hunt grey whales. A draft environmental impact statement was completed in 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Five Makah’s who killed a whale in 2007 without NOAA approval were charged with violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Three of them entered guilty pleas to charges of illegally killing a marine mammal in 2008, and the other two were convicted.
The Makah have said they would be happy if they were given a limit of one whale per year. The Yu’pik of Western Alaska did not wait for a limit and now have one whale.
Bethel’s great whale hunt stands in stark contrast to Barrow’s great whale rescue, which brought the state international exposure in 1988 and eventually resulted in a 2012 movie starring Drew Barrymore.
In that case, the bowhead whale hunters of Barrow found a couple of gray whales trapped in the ice and tried to rescue them. It was never known if they succeeded, and the odds are that they didn’t, but with the help of Alaska oil companies and a Russian ice breaker they managed to get the whales far enough offshore that everyone could declare victory, pat themselves on the back, and go home.
“Path Cleared in Ice, Whales Swim Free,” headlined the New York Times above a story that claimed “a Soviet icebreaker today cleared a path to the open sea” when in fact the ice breaker was nowhere close to the open sea.
But everyone in Barrow pretended to be happy they’d saved the whales. In Bethel, this time, everyone seemed to be excited they might get to eat a whale.
The differences between the whales of Barrow and the whale of Bethel reflect some key regional food differences. Barrow has access to bowhead whales and the animals in the Western Arctic Caribou herd, which numbers more than 200,000 strong.
Not to mention access to jobs in the Prudhoe Bay oil fields to the east or jobs with the well-funded North Slope Borough, which collects hundreds of millions of dollars each year in property taxes from Prudhoe.
Jobs are a lot harder to come by in Bethel and even harder to find in surrounding villages. Big whales don’t usually venture upriver, either. And while there are some moose in the area, the allowable harvest is small given a total population of only 2,500 to 3,500 of the animals scattered across the 75,000-square-miles of the Yukon-Kuskowkim Delta.
Thus residents of the region rely heavily on salmon and many were reporting early in that they came up short of fish this year due to weak runs of Chinook and sockeye.The sockeye turned out to be about a weak behind schedule and have known shown up in large, possibly record numbers.
Still, in a land where meat resources are limited, a giant whale looked to some like a gift from the gods.