Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script


Whale Count

INTRO: Each spring, bowhead whales return to the Arctic Ocean after a year feeding in the Bering Sea that separates Alaska and Russia. Awaiting them in Alaska are both hunters and scientists. As Doug Schneider reports in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, bowhead numbers are at their highest level in nearly a decade.

STORY: The annual hunt for bowhead whales is finally over in the Inupiat Eskimo village of Barrow, on Alaska's north coast. Native hunters harvested 20 bowheads that were each processed and divided among village residents. North Slope Borough whale biologist Craig George says this year's hunt was a good one, despite the broken ice that choked open leads and fog that made for poor visibility.

GEORGE: "It was a pretty typical year. In fact we had a lot of heavy multiyear ice which was driven in by strong southwest wind events. We had a pretty good season. I think 20 whales were landed. There are more whales that are struck and lost so the total mortality to the herd is higher."

While hunters were busy looking for whales to harvest, scientists stayed busy conducting the first comprehensive census of the bowhead population since 1993.

GEORGE: "We got a good count. We saw 3,300 bowheads, so the estimate will probably be reasonably high. But watch conditions were pretty bad. It was amazing we saw as many whales as we did given the conditions."

Once biologists account for the poor visibility and ice that probably shielded some whales from view, George says the number of whales could easily be higher than the 1993 census.

GEORGE: "Yes, it could very well go up. We saw a lot of calves and I think (their population) is doing pretty well."

Each spring, bowhead whales migrate north through the Arctic Ocean and into the Canadian Beaufort Sea, where they spend the summer feeding on zooplankton. Despite hunting by Alaska and Canadian Natives, bowhead numbers are considered healthy. Each year, Alaska Natives from several villages together harvest about 40 whales, which can grow to 60 feet and weigh up to 75 tons. The International Whaling Commission sets limits on the number of strikes allowed and the number of whales landed by each village.

GEORGE: "It's a conservative scheme. This is a slow-reproducing mammal. They can only take as many as they can show a need for. It doesn't matter if there are a million bowheads, they still need to show a need."

Another hunt is planned this fall, when the bowhead whales are expected to pass offshore again as they migrate south into the Bering Sea.

OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.

Audio version and related Web sites (sidebar at top right)
Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:

John Craighead George, Wildlife Biologist
North Slope Borough
Department of Wildlife Management
Barrow, Alaska
Phone: 907-852-0350

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Related Web sites

Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska

International Whaling Commission