"In Alaska, a Mystery Over Disappearing Whales"

"Belugas pass cultural knowledge across generations. Their survival may depend on how they collectively adapt."

"When Roswell Schaeffer Sr. was 8 years old, his father decided it was about time he started learning to hunt beluga whales. Schaeffer was an Iñupiaq kid growing up in Kotzebue, a small city in northwest Alaska, where a healthy store of beluga meat was part of making it through the winter. Each summer, thousands of these small white whales migrated to Kotzebue Sound, and hunts were an annual tradition. Whale skin and blubber, or muktuk, was prized, not only as a form of sustenance and a trading commodity, but also because of the spiritual value of sharing the catch with the community.

Now, nearly seven decades later, Schaeffer is one of only a few hunters who still spends the late weeks of spring, just after the ice has melted, on Kotzebue Sound, waiting for belugas to arrive. Many people have switched to hunting bearded seals, partly out of necessity: There simply aren’t enough belugas to sustain the community anymore.

In the 1980s, Kotzebue Sound’s beluga population began to dwindle, from thousands to hundreds, and then to the dozens or fewer that visit the region now. Kotzebue is not alone. Although some stocks are healthy, beluga numbers have fallen off in around a half-dozen regions over the last 50 years. Decades ago, hunting, commercial whaling, and other influences pushed the whales toward the brink. Now, even after hunting has ceased in some places, stresses such as climate change, increased ship traffic, and chemical pollutants are a gathering storm that threatens to finish the job."

Saima May Sidik reports for Undark November 30, 2022.

Source: Undark, 12/05/2022