In what's sparked an investigation by the NOAA, controversy is circling around the killing of a protected Gray Whale in Alaska’s Kuskokwim River.
Many of the elders of the Napaskiak tribe say they have never before witnessed a gray whale swim upstream through the Kuskokwim River from the Bering Sea.
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Regardless if they've witnessed such an amazing feat before or not, it actually happened on Thursday, about 50 miles upriver. The 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.
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“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.
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According to the tribe dozens of their members chased the whale when first spotted. They shot it with rifles and tossed harpoons at it in order to capture it, as so is the custom of the indigenous peoples of the region.
They say that when it finally died, it sank to the bottom of the river. In order to prevent any waste of vital meats and food from the whale,the tribe managed to hook the animal and haul it to shore.
Soon thereafter the tribe began the traditional harvest ceremony, as they were able to carve out thousands of pounds of edible meats.
That didn't stop whale protectionist activists from raising concerns and the questions about how the gray whale was captured, expressing that they are concerned that such actions could be in violation of the law, which the indigenous tribe disagrees with completely.
Although 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, native peoples have specific customs in hunting that are also protected.
The 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 if it the investigation leads to the conclusion that the killing is somehow unjust, which most experts believe us unlikely.
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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.
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“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.