By TAMAR BEN-YOSEF
Anchorage Daily News
August 13, 2007
And they could only speculate about what had happened to one of their main subsistence food sources, which in previous times would frequent local shores with the preciseness of a clock. No one really knows why the white whales stopped showing up in large numbers in the Kotzebue region.
Then in late July, another mystery swam to the shallow waters of the village of Kivalina: hundreds of beluga, mainly large males, coming from the north.
The surprise appearance of the belugas spread through the villages of Kivalina, Point Hope, Buckland, Kotzebue and Deering. Residents took to the beaches and harvested as many as 70 whales. And that sparked a local debate: Did they take too many?
Hundreds of belugas had not been seen in the area since the mid-1990s, when a large number of whales showed up one summer and locals caught more than 60. People theorized at the time that they had migrated from Russian waters.
Longtime hunters in the region have raised doubts about whether this summer's whales are the lost pods of Kotzebue Sound, especially given that they are swimming close to shore and seemingly unafraid of humans.
"They are behaving differently from the Kotzebue Sound belugas," said Ross Schaeffer, a hunter and former chair of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee. "They are acting naive, like they have never been hunted before," he said.
It's unusual to see belugas in Kotzebue this early in the season. In the past, they've tended to migrate north around July 4 toward the ice pack to feed, and to return south in September. Kathy Frost, a marine-mammal biologist and a member of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, said that belugas, unlike many other animals, have a routine they follow year after year.
"They will even return on the exact same day," Frost said.
Several killer whale sightings in deeper waters made locals think the belugas were chased to shallow water by predators.
Others speculated seismic offshore oil exploration around Point Lay, prime beluga habitat, helped drive the whales south.
While Inupiat view belugas as a subsistence resource, in the Lower 48, and elsewhere outside, belugas are perceived at aquariums around the world as lovable characters that appear to perform with a perpetual smile.
So while residents in the region celebrated, others did not necessarily share the same sentiments.
Radio listeners called in to Kotzebue's station to question the sustainability of the beluga population in the face of such a harvest, and others hesitated to have photographs of the hunt published for fear of accusations of waste.
Rumors began spreading of an investigation of the matter in Kotzebue by the local state troopers and the FBI. Spokesmen for both organizations said they are not investigating the beluga harvest.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.scrippsnews.com
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