June 20, 2006
Alaskan Eskimos Fear Whaling Future Under Threat
By Daisuke Wakabayashi
BARROW, Alaska -- As mayor of Alaska's oil-rich North Slope Borough, Edward Itta understands that developing the region's energy resources can pay for better schools and much-needed infrastructure improvements.
But Itta also sees how greed for oil money can break down local Inupiat Eskimo culture and traditions that date back thousands of years and lead to drug use and other ills found in a modern society.
Having to walk a fine line to balance those two forces, the soft-spoken mayor is diplomatic and measured with his words -- except when it comes to drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean and the threat this poses to Inupiat whaling traditions.
"We are emphatically and adamantly against offshore drilling," said Itta, who is also a whaling captain. "We do anything and everything to protect the whale. I shudder to even think what would happen in the event of a catastrophic spill.
"If they (oil companies and the federal government) destroy our way of life, what's their alternative? They don't have any and we don't have a recourse."
For years, the oil industry avoided drilling in the frozen Arctic Ocean because it was considered too risky, too expensive and too controversial in the eight Inupiat villages in Alaska's North Slope.
But now, encouraged by high energy prices and improved technology, Shell, ConocoPhillips and other oil companies think the time is right to begin exploration in the ice-choked waters of Alaska's Arctic coastline.
There are about 180 tracts under lease in the Beaufort Sea section of the Arctic Ocean and there are plans for lease sales by the federal government in the adjoining Chukchi Sea in 2007, according to the U.S. Minerals Management Service.
Whaling plays a central role in the Inupiat Eskimo culture. Every spring, whaling crews head out onto the thawing ice to catch a bowhead whale. If a whaling captain and his crew are successful, they are expected to share the meat with the entire community at a series of celebrations over the next few weeks.
Subsistence hunting is also a financial necessity for many residents in the northern reaches of Alaska.
Since Barrow is 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle with no roads connecting it to other towns, food is very expensive in the city's few grocery stores. A gallon (3.8 liters) of milk can nearly $8.
Residents of coastal whaling communities expressed concern about how noises from oil-exploration activities such as seismic tests could disturb the normal migration of whales and other marine mammals.
Whaling captains say bowhead whales are sensitive creatures, easily scared off by the slightest noise or disturbance to its environment.
And some whaling captains are more concerned about a worst-case scenario.
"It's never been proven to us beyond a reasonable doubt that they would be able to handle an oil spill" in ice-filled waters, said Crawford Patkotak, a co-captain in his father's whaling crew.
"We're going to continue to whale and we're going to continue to protect the ocean," said Patkotak during preparations for the Apugauti ceremony to distribute meat from a recent catch and celebrate the safe return of the whaling crew.
The ceremony starts when a successful whaling crew brings the traditional Arctic whaling boat, or umiak, ashore from the water's edge. The crew then serves mikigaq, fermented whale meat and blubber, and a traditional soup made from geese.
"We are still very much a subsistence-based community. We live off the land, we live off the sea. It's a big part of our diet and culture," said Itta. "We were here before oil and we will be here after oil."
Oil companies are making efforts to win over the local community. Shell hired George Ahmaogak, a former North Slope Borough Mayor, the man once called the "Eskimo JFK" and a whaling captain, as its Alaska community affairs manager.
"We are now and will continue to listen to and to address the concerns of local communities," said Rick Fox, Shell's Alaska asset manager, at a recent meeting of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association. "Offshore is our business. Improved technology, favorable prices all make this the right time."
Borough officials recognize that America's unquenchable thirst for oil will need to be filled and Itta offered up the "desolate" Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as an alternative source for development.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a plan to allow oil drilling on a small section of ANWR, but the divisive issue could face resistance in the Senate.
"ANWR has become an environmentalist fund-raising dream," said Itta, letting out a chuckle before making one last plea. "Sure there's oil and politics, but us Eskimos are pretty damn good people."
(Additional reporting by Yereth Rosen in Anchorage)