BARROW, Alaska – Minutes after the hunters’ harpoon pierced the flesh of a bowhead whale, the call went out.
By cellphone and radio, native Alaskans were beckoned to the beach. Dozens worked furiously in the dark to carve the 40-ton beast and distribute the meat before it could spoil.
The resulting harvest in early October was stashed in cellars tunneled into the tundra. It will supply the delicacy muktuk for holiday celebrations and put food on the table of native Alaskans in far-flung villages for months to come.
The ritual has been going on for centuries in this small town at the northern tip of Alaska: twice-yearly hunts and harvests, with celebrations centered on the prized bowhead whale.
Some Inupiats fear that this tradition – and their subsistence way of life – could be jeopardized by offshore oil drilling, as Shell Oil Co. conducts a fresh search for Arctic crude and other companies plan similar pursuits. But others have adopted a more pragmatic approach.
They know that life on the barren, snow-packed land is sustained as much by the oil money that flows through the North Slope as by whale, seal and caribou.
The roadways, indoor plumbing, high school and community center have all been financed by Alaska’s oil wealth, notes Oliver Leavitt, a former vice president of the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and one of the patriarchs of a prominent Barrow whaling clan.
“The infrastructure that you see in Barrow is what was brought in by oil,” Leavitt says as he slowly flips over playing cards during a game of solitaire in the local search and rescue office. “Before the discovery of oil, there was no education past eighth grade. This place has been transformed because of oil.”
Leavitt, a gruff man who measures out his words carefully, scoffs at some natives’ boasts that they could forgo oil money and return to living solely on hunting and fishing.
“A lot of the young say they will go back to the old ways. They don’t know the old way,” Leavitt says. “They grew up with the oil money.”
The oil economy
Barrow is the biggest community in the North Slope Borough, a 95,000-square mile area about the size of Michigan, with eight villages that aren’t linked by roads. While satellite dishes dot the flat expanse of the slope, some of the villages only recently have gotten indoor plumbing.
Change has come courtesy of the Prudhoe Bay oil field and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System that sends crude 800 miles south to Valdez, where it is shipped by tankers to the lower 48 states. The Native Alaskan-owned Arctic Slope Regional Corp. leases drilling rights to companies and owns a suite of oil field service, construction and refining companies, with profits distributed as dividends to shareholders.
Taxes on oil developments also funnel money into municipal coffers – ensuring a steady stream of cash that pays for education, government services and infrastructure in the villages.
Many are worried that the money will dry up, as surely as declining Prudhoe Bay oil production is starving the pipeline, threatening to make it unusable if its flow drops too low. New oil development – whether offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas or on land – offers the promise of new crude supplies for the pipeline and a fresh source of revenue for the region.
Oil dividends help blunt the high cost of living on the United States’ northernmost edge, where commodities are flown and barged in at great cost.
In Barrow’s grocery store, hothouse tomatoes were selling for $6.29 per pound in October, milk ran $9.99 per gallon, and a package of romaine hearts was $4.59.
“That’s our garden out there,” says whaler Ron Saganna, gesturing to the Beaufort Sea and repeating a refrain commonly heard on the North Slope, where nearly year-round snow and cold preclude farming. “Over 50 percent of our food source comes from the ocean.”
The Gulf spill
For locals, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill painted fresh images of the potential destruction to their Arctic harvest of whales, salmon and seal – even eclipsing memories of oiled birds and other environmental damage when the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground near Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.
“If they have a catastrophe like in the Gulf of Mexico and that stuff seeps up in the ice and it floats up all around the Northern Hemisphere, it’s going to hurt our hunting. It’s going to ruin our source of food,” Saganna says. “Who knows how many years it would take to get back to normal, for us to go back to hunting?”
A cultural touchstone
Saganna, a member of the Patkotak whaling crew, was one of dozens of men who helped haul in and butcher the whale captured last month.
During the hunt, whaling crews – sometimes numbering up to 25 – camp on the edge of the ice, waiting for bowhead to pass close by as the animals migrate through the area in fall and spring. When they see one, they approach in umiaks, wooden frame boats covered in seal skin.
If they are close enough to a surfacing whale, a designated crew member throws or shoots a whaling harpoon loaded with an explosive dart that detonates on impact. The target is just behind the whale’s eye, but there almost always are follow-up shots with a whaling gun and other weapons.
Dead whales are towed in and butchered onshore, with half of the meat generally distributed to the crew that brought down the beast, and the remainder distributed to villagers and those who helped carve up the creature.
The entire hunt is fraught with danger – including the risk that ice will break off from shore and carry a whaling crew out to sea.
“Once you’re out there, if you see dark water in the back of you, then you’ve got to back up,” said Perry Anashugak, a 48-year-old Inupiat who has been whaling since he was a teenager. “You can’t drift out. You have to go back and get onto solid ice.”
The bowhead is endangered, and while subsistence hunts are allowed, they are strictly limited by the International Whaling Commission, which allotted 74 strikes to Alaskans this year.
Even as it is hunted, the whale is revered as a source of food and life. One crew wears jackets emblazoned with a Bible verse: “And God created great whales … and God saw that it was good.”
Thomas Napageak Jr., former mayor of Nuiqsut, a village of 400 people 150 miles east of Barrow, says even Inupiats who support oil development onshore and off are concerned that noise from seismic research and boat engines could scare off the whales, driving them farther from shore and making the annual hunts even more dangerous.
“We live off the land. We live off the ocean,” Napageak said. “That’s our natural resource. We want to protect what we eat.”
Behind the skepticism are years of mistreatment and marginalization at the hands of outsiders, including policymakers in Washington. Older residents remember being shipped off to boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
In the late 1950s, the government sought to detonate nuclear bombs to excavate a deep-water harbor 30 miles from the northwest Alaskan village of Point Hope. The project was abandoned in the face of public criticism, but not until after federal scientists sprinkled radioactive material in the area to simulate nuclear fallout and test its effects on local drinking water.
Shell has spent years trying to counter those memories – and the fears that even without a spill, ocean life could be harmed by the engine noise and drilling chemicals that come with a new search for oil.
Pete Slaiby, the executive vice president of Shell Alaska, has been the public face of that effort, courting native Alaskans and making concessions designed to assuage their biggest concerns.
For instance, Shell agreed to halt work and move out of the way during the bowhead migration, although whaling captains this year agreed to let the company begin work before the hunt was finished. Slaiby also promised not to discharge drilling fluids and waste into the Beaufort Sea, though Shell did not extend the same pledge to the Chukchi Sea.
Reducing the footprint
Slaiby said Shell has worked hard to minimize its footprint in Barrow and Wainwright, where the company stationed camps and workers during its preliminary drilling last summer. Shell’s crew camp in Barrow is on the outskirts of town; workers living there were discouraged from shopping at the local grocery store, or participating in whale harvests or even using local taxis to travel around town.
“What we’re really trying to do is make sure we are not disrupting people’s lives,” Slaiby says, adding that charter flights and Shell-provided groceries were designed to ensure the influx of workers didn’t inflate prices for food and travel.
Native Alaskans know that offshore oil exploration – and the potential for eventual year-round production – could change their culture and customs.
Leavitt, the former Arctic Slope executive, remembers similar fears surfacing when oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay in 1968 and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was built in the 1970s.
“There was a big flurry of activities up here,” Leavitt recalls. “Even then, people squawked about the discovery of oil, saying, ‘There goes our caribou, our fish,’ in the building of the pipeline. But the caribou are still there – right in the field.”
Even oil development skeptics in the area say they would rather see it happen onshore – in the 22.8-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve- Alaska or the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – than in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Napageak, the former mayor, said onshore development is less risky and offers more benefits for Nuiqsut and other villages near the reserve.
Leavitt agrees that it’s safer to search for oil on land. “The more the environmentalists lock up the land where the oil may be, the more they’re going to have to go offshore,” Leavitt says. “And there’s more danger there.”