NOAA launches investigation into Kuskokwim gray whale killing
Some elders of Napaskiak say they have never seen a gray whale swim up the Kuskokwim River from the Bering Sea.
But, it happened on Thursday, about 50 miles upriver. Honorary Napaskiak Chief Chris Larson said in Yupik culture when an animal presents itself, it's considered a gift and would be wrong not to accept it.
"I really don’t know what happened, but I think it’s okay. It's there. It’s right there in front of us. It's like a gift from someone to the community," he said
Dozens of locals chased the whale when first spotted. They shot it with rifles and tossed harpoons at it. When it died, it sank to the bottom of the river. There was a lot of concern that it would go to waste. But, people managed to hook the animal and haul it to shore.
As the harvest began Saturday, so did the questions about the taking of the gray whale. Gray whales in Alaska were removed from the list of endangered species in 1994 and are considered recovered, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. NOAA provides exceptions for Alaska natives to hunt whales but says this hunt wasn't authorized and has started an investigation. There is no word right now what kind of penalty villagers would face, if any, for killing the gray whale.
For now, the "gift" is feeding everyone in the village. It is estimated the whale will provide 20,000 pounds of meat and blubber to those in Napaskiak and neighboring villages.
Bethel Fire Chief Bill Howell runs a meat cutting business and volunteered to help cut up the whale.
“I think it’s important that they continue to harvest marine mammals, it’s a big part of their culture. Whales of this nature are very rare but I think it’s something they are entitled to because of their tradition," he said.
Napaskiak and other villages along the Kuskokwim are allowed to take beluga whales with no consequences, according to NOAA.