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Arctic Science Journeys
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Bowhead Blowout

INTRO: Canada faces U.S. economic sanctions for its harvest last year of two endangered bowhead whales. Debra Damron has more, on Arctic Science Journeys, coming up next.

STORY: When Canada's Inuit Eskimos killed two bowhead whales last summer, they thought they were reviving ancient hunting traditions. Instead, they received condemnation from the International Whaling Commission and economic sanctions from the United States.

Michael Tillman is the Deputy U.S. Commissioner to the IWC. He says Canada violated international law when it allowed Inuits to kill two bowhead whales without the commission's approval. One of the whales belonged to healthy stocks in the western Arctic. But it's the killing of a bowhead whale in the eastern Canadian Arctic that has U.S. and IWC officials riled. The eastern group is thought to number only about 450 whales. The whaling commission's Michael Tillman.

TILLMAN: "The issue is that it is an endangered stock of whales and to take even one or two from such a small stock would not be helpful for the recovery of that population."

Canadian officials disagree. Bill Doubleday is Director General of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

DOUBLEDAY: "With respect to the eastern Arctic bowhead, first of all I should emphasize that this is an aboriginal hunt, and it is restoring traditional hunting which took place in past centuries. We have both traditional knowledge and scientific studies which indicate the eastern Arctic bowhead have increased since the 1920s when commercial whaling stopped, despite the occasional harvest of one whale in some years. So there's no threat to conservation there."

In response to the illegal whale harvests, U.S. President Bill Clinton in March ordered that a current ban on the importation of seal products from Canada be continued. Canada had been seeking an exemption that would allow Eskimos to sell seal products in the U.S. Canada's Bill Doubleday believes the sanctions are an attempt to force Canada to rejoin the IWC.

DOUBLEDAY: "This has always been mentioned in communications from the United States government, that our harvest might be acceptable if we were to join the International Whaling Commission. Our Inuit are opposed to this. They don't feel that the whaling commission would take their interests properly into account."

Canada withdrew from the International Whaling Commission in 1982. Nine years later, Canadian officials allowed Inuit Eskimos to renew traditional whale hunts. But until last summer, Inuits harvested just one whale. In contrast, Eskimos in Alaska take more than 50 whales a year under an IWC-approved management plan. Bill Doubleday says the sanctions did get Canada's attention, but it likely won't bring Canada back to the IWC.

DOUBLEDAY: "No, we have no plans to rejoin the whaling commission at this time."

That position, says the IWCs Michael Tillman, is hypocritical in view of Canada's participation in other international fishery agreements. As evidence, he points to Canada's naval blockade of Spanish fishing vessels off its coast two years ago. The blockade forced Spain to joined international efforts to rebuild cod stocks in the Atlantic Ocean.

TILLMAN: "Well, Canada can't have it both ways. Canada went to war with Spain over Spain not adhering to international agreements vis-a-vis Canadian fisheries stocks on the east coast. It led to in fact a brand new international standard because of their concerns over nations acting unilaterally outside of appropriate international management groups. They are going exactly against that principal they established for other international fisheries. It is totally just not in conformity with their behavior in other international arenas. That's our view."

For the moment at least, both sides appear entrenched in their positions. But in sign that a compromise may yet be reached, the IWC, according to Michael Tillman, may be willing to grant a harvest quota to Canada if it rejoins the whaling commission.

OUTRO: Reporting from Fairbanks, Alaska, this is Debra Damron for Arctic Science Journeys.

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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