Friday, November 17, 2006

Nature story with a bad ending
Shelley Batts over at Retrospectacle! points us to this unfolding tragedy in the far north.
Arctic hunters reluctantly gathered their harpoons and rifles Thursday to kill dozens of beluga whales that have been trapped for weeks in saltwater lakes and now have only one small air hole through the ice remaining.

Inuit living near Tuktoyaktuk, in Canada's far Northwest Territories, had hoped the belugas would find their way back to the Beaufort Sea before ice blocked the way out. Many did not make it and they are trapped, having to share a small hole in the ice.


About 200 beluga were first spotted in early August by hunters in the Husky Lakes area south of Tuktoyaktuk, a string of saltwater inlets north of the Arctic Circle that are linked to the ocean through a 300-meter-wide [980-foot-wide] channel.

There still were about 80 of the white mammals left in the lakes by late October, but the lakes and the channel are quickly freezing over and the whales' air hole shrinking.

Residents were cheering for the belugas to escape, even though each animal could provide enough meat and "muktuk" -- skin and blubber usually served raw -- to last a couple of large families through the winter.

But officials determined that escape was now impossible and the whales would suffocate or starve.

The beluga is nothing more than a big white dolphin. They are white and clean looking that they are quite stunning to see in the wild. My family's cabin in Alaska is at a place called Beluga and we can see dozens of them feeding during the salmon run each summer. Although we call them whales, belugas are small enough for orcas and even polar bears to kill and eat. There are about 35,000 belugas worldwide, but some individual populations, like those in the St. Lawrence River and Cook Inlet have declined to the point where they are considered endangered by biologists.

The article doesn't exactly make clear why the Tuktoyaktuk Inuit are reluctant to kill the belugas. After all, this is free food to them. Leaving aside the spiritual aspect, which is still very real for most Inuit, there is a tragic, practical aspect to this. Most native northern peoples are to some extent still subsistence hunters. They know that next year's food supply depends on enough belugas escaping to breed and return next year. There are fewer than a thousand people in Tuktoyaktuk. This number of whales is more than they can eat. At the most practical level, killing these whales is wasted food.

When I lived in Alaska, I would see this tragedy of a bunch of belugas getting caught in the ice happen every few years. It always made the news. In 1985, 3000 belugas were trapped off the coast of Siberia. Local hunters alerted Moscow and the Soviets dispatched one of their giant ice-breakers to open a path. The noise of the ship frightened the whales, but they were finally induced to follow the ship when the crew played classical music over the ship's loud speakers.

There is nothing unique to the north about that attention. Endangered animals bring out the empathy in people. Two weeks ago the attention of the Dutch was riveted on a group of horses trapped on a tiny island by a heavy winter storm. Animal abuse stories in the local news always generate enraged letters to the editor.

It looks like there will be no dramatic rescue for these belugas. The best that the hunters of Tuktoyaktuk can offer is to stop their suffering.

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