Alaska‘s whales are disappearing due to a triple threat – overhunting, climate change, and human disruption of marine ecosystems. Whale populations that were once abundant in Alaskan waters have declined precipitously over the past century. The decades-long drop in numbers continues to devalue both Alaska‘s natural heritage and the traditions of its indigenous peoples.
According to estimates by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the blue whale population in the Gulf of Alaska has fallen to just 1% of pre-hunting levels. In the early 1900s, humpback whales in the region numbered over 10,000 strong. Today, NOAA estimates the Alaska humpback population at only around 2,000.
The crisis is perhaps most acute for the beluga whale. As recently as the 1970s, thousands of belugas populated Cook Inlet and the northern coasts. But by 2016, NOAA‘s Alaska Fisheries Science Center found only about 328 remained in the Cook Inlet beluga‘s distinct population segment. Research biologist Tamara McGuire confirms that subsistence hunting, oil extraction, agricultural runoff and coastal infrastructure development have fueled the plunge.
For Rick Harper, an Iñupiaq elder born and raised in Kotzebue, the days of his tribe‘s celebrated beluga hunts now live on more in memory than reality. "When I was a boy, our richest times were when the belugas returned," Harper recounted. "Now our children may live their whole lives without seeing the belugas‘ spring homecoming."
The disappearing whales represent more than lost food for Alaska‘s indigenous communities. Entire cultural traditions centered around whale hunting and preparation risk fading away. Lisa Naviq, an Iñupiaq language instructor, fears an erasure of identity as indigenous ties to the whales erode. "Our vocabulary, stories, songs – so much of our language flows from our relationship with the whales," Naviq explained. "This loss ripples through generations."
Beyond the cultural impact, the declining whale populations may already be altering the Gulf of Alaska‘s delicate marine ecology. Whales play a vital role in food chains as predators of fish and invertebrates. "Remove the whales, and you lose a control on organisms like zooplankton, which then cascades through the whole system," said marine biologist Dr. Rachel Ford, who teaches at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Climate change acts as the multiplier of all other factors depleting Alaska‘s whales. Warming ocean temperatures have coincided with sharp drops in the whale‘s food supply. Key prey species like Arctic cod, Pacific herring and krill have had to migrate northward with the receding cold currents. This leaves the great whales perpetually chasing dwindling food sources.
Yet still the whales endure as targets for modern industrial fishing. TheCook Inlet beluga‘s endangered status bars hunters from harvesting it, but native whalers can still take bowheads, grays and humpbacks limited by strict quotas. Conservationists argue such allowances need to end. "Whales worldwide simply cannot recover with continued hunting," contends Gianna Mertz, senior specialist with WhaleSafe, a nonprofit devoted to abolishing whale harvesting globally.
Beyond hunting, human-triggered climate shifts have opened the Arctic waters further to the clamor of shipping traffic and noise pollution. This compounds stress on species like belugas that rely on echolocation to hunt and communicate. "These whales‘ world grows louder every year, masking the natural sounds they navigate by," Dr. Ford explained. "We‘re barely grasping how harmful it may be."
Conservation efforts by NOAA along with groups like the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee have made inroads locally through lobbying, research and raising awareness. But time is not on the whales‘ side. NOAA biologist McGuire notes that belugas only birth one calf every three to five years on average. "Even with total protection, restoring past population sizes could easily take over a century at that reproductive rate," she said.
The path forward remains murky both for conservationists and Alaska‘s indigenous people. As climate change continues to transform the Arctic marine environment, the whales may never frequent the same historical hunting grounds again. Maintaining traditions under these circumstances will require adaptability and openness to new means and methods.
Still, groups like the Iñupiaq continue honoring the whales as they adjust to new realities. Though belugas grow scarce along Alaska‘s northern edge, Rick Harper strives to teach the old hunting songs and tales to the village youth all the same. Keeping the spirit of his people‘s sacred relationship with the whales remains Harper‘s contribution to safeguarding the culture.
"We‘ve persevered through so much change before, and we will again," Harper reflected. "As long as we preserve the wisdom of past generations, our people‘s bond with the whales lives within us."