The Mystery of Alaska’s Missing Whales

This story originally appeared in Dark and is part of climate desk Cooperation.

When Roswell Schaeffer Sr. was 8 years old, his father decided it was time to learn how to hunt beluga whales. Schaeffer was an Iñupiaq child growing up in Kotzebue, a small town in northwest Alaska where a healthy supply of beluga meat was a part of getting through the winter. Thousands of these small beluga whales migrated to Kotzebue Sound each summer and hunts were an annual tradition. Whale skin and blubber, or muktuk, were valued not only as a food and commodity, but also for the spiritual value of sharing the catch with the community.

Now, almost seven decades later, Schaeffer is one of the few hunters who still spend the late spring weeks, just after the ice melts, still on Kotzebue Sound waiting for the belugas to arrive. Many people have switched to hunting bearded seals, partly out of necessity: there simply aren’t enough belugas left to feed the community.

In the 1980s the beluga population in Kotzebue Sound began to decline, from the thousands to hundreds and then tens or fewer that visit the region today. Kotzebue is not alone. Although some stocks are healthy, beluga numbers have declined in about half a dozen regions over the past 50 years. Decades ago, hunting, commercial whaling, and other influences marginalized whales. Now, even after hunting has stopped in some places, pressures such as climate change, increasing shipping traffic and chemical pollutants are brewing a storm that threatens to end the work.

However, some scientists believe that understanding how the whales respond to these stresses may be as important as understanding the stresses themselves. Like chimpanzees, birds, humans, and many other animals, belugas create cultures by sharing the knowledge and customs of one generation pass on to the next. With climate change and other human activities changing the world at an alarming rate, belugas will likely have to rely on innovative cultural practices to adapt – genetic adaptation is simply too slow to keep up.

However, cultural practices can become routine, and just like humans, other animals can cling to traditions long after they no longer make sense. According to Greg O’Corry-Crowe, a behavioral ecologist at Florida Atlantic University, a key question is: will the culture pull the whales through?

“When the change is maybe that seismic and that fast, you try to look to the social conservatives for the innovators and pioneers,” O’Corry-Crowe said. At the same time, indigenous peoples like Schaeffer face their own dilemma. Continuing beluga hunting may affect the whales’ chances of a return, but if indigenous groups abandon the practice, they could lose knowledge that has helped sustain them in the Arctic for thousands of years.

philosophers and scientists have long suggested that animals can learn. But as early as the early 2000s, scientists debated the idea that animals accumulate knowledge over generations. One animal that has helped popularize this idea is the killer whale.

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