Science Short: Marine Subsistence Uses for Iñupiat Communities


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Marine Subsistence Uses

Interest in offshore oil and gas exploration in the Chukchi Sea has risen in recent years and therefore the documentation of subsistence uses in the Chukchi Sea is of interest to stakeholders, industry, and government agencies. Several coastal communities on the North Slope, including Barrow, Wainwright, Point Lay, and Point Hope, use the marine waters of the Chukchi Sea for the purposes of subsistence hunting and harvesting. This report discusses marine subsistence uses, with a focus on spatial extent, for Barrow and Wainwright, two primarily Iñupiat communities located on the North Slope of Alaska.

Species Harvested and Resource Importance

The communities of Barrow and Wainwright rely on subsistence harvests of both marine and terrestrial resources; however, resources from the marine environment, including bowhead whales, seals, and walrus, generally provide a majority of their yearly subsistence harvests as measured in edible pounds. During all available harvest study years in Barrow and Wainwright, harvests of marine mammals alone have accounted for at least 50 percent of the total annual harvest (in terms of edible pounds). In some years, marine mammal harvests accounted for up to 70 percent of the total subsistence harvest in Wainwright, and up to 73 percent of the total subsistence harvest in Barrow. In addition, harvests of resources such as fish, marine invertebrates,

Subsistence uses are key to the culture of the Iñupiat of the North Slope.

and waterfowl (particularly eiders) occur in marine waters. Species harvested by Barrow and Wainwright residents in the Chukchi Sea include bowhead whales; beluga whales; bearded, ringed, and spotted seals; walrus; polar bears; king and common eiders; and fish such as Arctic cisco, Bering cisco, rainbow smelt, Dolly Varden, broad whitefish, and salmon. According to available ADF&G data, annual harvests of marine mammals have provided between 105 and 253 pounds of edible food per capita in Barrow, and between 224 and 356 pounds per capita in Wainwright.

Subsistence uses and activities are key to the culture and cultural identity of the Iñupiat of the North Slope. Particularly important to coastal Iñupiat communities is the bowhead whale, which is central to Iñupiat cultural identity. Iñupiat people have been hunting bowhead whales for centuries and continue to participate yearly in bowhead whale hunts and associated rituals, preparations, and festivals. The activities associated with bowhead whale hunting, including preparing, hunting, harvesting, distributing, and celebrating a successful harvest,

Bowhead hunting requires the entire community, helping strengthen social ties and community.

require the efforts of the entire community and help strengthen social ties and community and individual cultural identity. Various subsistence harvests also help support the bowhead whale hunt: eiders and seals are harvested in the spring to help feed whaling crews; bearded seals are harvested for their meat and for their skin, which is used to build traditional umiat (skin boats) for whale hunting; and whaling crews hunt geese in preparation for the community-wide celebration at the end of the whaling season known as Nalukataq. The ability to continue these activities and harvest healthy, high quality marine resources in adequate quantities is key to the economic, nutritional, social, and cultural well-being of coastal Iñupiat communities.

Seasonal Round

Use of the offshore environment by residents of Barrow and Wainwright occurs year-round, but primarily during the open lead and open water seasons (April through October). Barrow residents begin the spring season (April and May) by hunting bowhead whales (as well as eiders and seals as available) in open leads along the Chukchi Sea, then travel inland to harvest waterfowl. The summer and fall months are occupied by hunting marine mammals (bearded and ringed seals, walrus) in the open ocean, concluding with the fall bowhead whale hunt in October. Also during the summer and fall months, Barrow residents set nets for various species of fish at coastal locations and harvest clams. During the late fall and winter months, residents target ringed seals on the ice as well as polar bears closer to shore.


The Wainwright seasonal round for the offshore environment is similar to that of Barrow. Bowhead whale hunting occurs during the spring (April and May into June) and fall (October), although Wainwright harvesters have had limited success in the fall due to bowhead whales migrating farther offshore once they start their southward migration in the Chukchi Sea.

Beluga whale hunting generally occurs during or after the bowhead whale season, in July and August. Ringed seals are hunted throughout the winter close to shore, and also from April through July in open leads or in the open ocean. Bearded seal hunting occurs almost solely during the months of June, July, and August; walrus hunting also occurs in July and August. Residents hunt eiders during the spring whaling season and extending into the summer. Nearshore subsistence activities include coastal fishing for salmon, Dolly Varden, Bering cisco, and sculpins during the summer months.

Subsistence Use Areas


Barrow subsistence use area data related to the marine environment are available for lifetime to 1979, 1979-1983, 1987-1989, and 1997-2006 and are shown on Maps 1 through 6. These maps include use areas for beluga whale, bowhead whale, polar bear, seal, and walrus. Use areas for resources harvested in the nearshore environment, such as fish, waterfowl, and marine invertebrates, are not included in this report but are provided in SRB&A. Barrow offshore use areas for all resources, depicted on Map 1, show marine uses extending nearly 90 miles offshore to the north of Point Barrow and up to approximately 60 miles offshore from the Chukchi and Beaufort sea coasts. The majority of reported use areas do not extend beyond 60 miles from shore.

arc-beluga-250-RC.jpgBeluga Whales

Barrow beluga use areas reported for the lifetime to 1979 time period (Map 2) show beluga hunting activities occurring in the Chukchi Sea as far south as Peard Bay and east past Point Barrow almost as far as Smith Bay. Residents reported traveling offshore up to approximately 20 miles in the Chukchi Sea and 25 miles in the Beaufort Sea. For a shorter time period (1979-1983), hunting activities did not extend as far south but occurred up to approximately 15 miles from shore (Map 2). Beluga harvests by Barrow residents are less common than for other Chukchi Sea communities such as Wainwright and Point Lay. According to Braund and Burnham (1984), beluga hunting in Barrow generally occurred during the spring bowhead whale hunt or during the summer at Elson Lagoon or Peard Bay when the belugas feed on anadromous fish. North Slope Borough data show that during five study years between 1995 and 2003, Barrow beluga harvests occurred during only one of these years. No current (post-1980s) data on Barrow subsistence use areas for beluga whales are available. Bowhead Whales Barrow bowhead whale use areas reported for various time periods (lifetime to 1979, 1979- 1983, 1987-1989, and 1997-2006) show Barrow bowhead whale hunting activities occurring in the Chukchi Sea from Point Barrow south to Peard Bay and (in one case, where a Barrow respondent reported hunting on a Wainwright bowhead whaling crew) as far as Wainwright (Map 3). Beaufort Sea hunting activities have been reported beyond Smith Bay in the east, although for the majority of time periods, use areas extend approximately as far as Cape Simpson. Barrow whaling crews hunt bowhead whales in the Chukchi Sea both in the spring and fall; Beaufort Sea hunting activities occur primarily during the fall, although spring whaling camps are sometimes set near or east of Point Barrow. Residents have reported traveling as far as 60 miles offshore in search of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea, and nearly 40 miles offshore in the Chukchi Sea. Hunting areas generally extend farther from shore during the fall season due to hunters traveling in open water using motorized boats, rather than being limited to the location of leads in the ice as they are in the spring. The locations of bowhead whale hunting are highly variable and depend on environmental factors such as ice, wind, and current conditions; local hunters have also cited industrial activities as factors affecting bowhead whale harvest locations during certain years (e.g., in 1989 when fall harvests occurred as far east as Smith Bay). The available use area data indicate that while the general area where Barrow harvesters hunt bowhead whales has remained similar over time (e.g., south of Point Barrow to the Peard Bay area and east of Point Barrow toward Cape Simpson), more recent hunting activities (e.g., since the late 1980s) have occurred farther offshore. For example, the lifetime to 1979 and 1979-1983 data show Chukchi Sea bowhead whale use areas extending less than 20 miles offshore, whereas 1997-2006 Chukchi Sea use areas extend over 30 miles offshore.

Polar Bears

Subsistence use area data for polar bears is limited to the lifetime to 1979 data set and shows polar bear hunting occurring in an offshore area south of Point Barrow to Peard Bay and east of Point Barrow into Harrison Bay (Map 4). Polar bear hunting areas did not extend farther than 20 miles offshore. Polar bear hunting is primarily a wintertime activity (from October/November until May); these marine mammals are harvested when available near the coast after they move in from the ice pack in November.


Seals are the second most commonly harvested marine mammal in Barrow (after bowhead whales) in terms of edible pounds harvested and are used both for their meat and oil and, in the case of bearded seals, for the production of umiat (skin boats) used in bowhead whaling. Subsistence use areas for seal (including bearded seal and ringed seal) are shown on Map 5 for the lifetime to 1979, 1979-1983, 1987-1989, and 1997-2006 time periods. This map shows seal hunting occurring in an offshore area south of Point Barrow to Wainwright and east of Point Barrow in an apparent hunting route as far as Prudhoe Bay. Most documented subsistence use areas do not extend past Peard Bay in the south and Smith Bay in the east (Map 5). Seal hunting occurs both close to shore on the ice during the winter and spring months (primarily for ringed seal), and in the open ocean during the summer months of June through August (for ringed seal and bearded seal). During interviews in 2006, Barrow respondents reported the highest numbers of seal use areas for the month of July. The most recently documented subsistence use areas for seal (for the 1997-2006 time period) show residents traveling much farther offshore than in previous years, up to 60 miles offshore compared with a maximum of 30 miles during previous study years (from the 1970s and 1980s). During interviews in Barrow in 2006, a number of harvester respondents noted that in recent years they had been traveling farther in search of marine mammals such as walrus and seal because of changes in ice conditions, which had resulted in the ice pack (and marine mammals, which follow the ice pack) being farther from shore. The distance traveled offshore in search of seals generally varies from year to year, based on factors such as ice conditions and weather; however, recent data show a marked change in the extent that hunters will travel in search of seals.


Map 6 shows walrus use areas for the lifetime to 1979, 1979-1983, 1987-1989, and 1997- 2006 time periods. These data show walrus hunters traveling south of Point Barrow as far as (and beyond) Wainwright and east of Point Barrow as far as Smith Bay, although the majority of reported walrus use areas do not extend this far east and are generally concentrated west and south of Point Barrow. Walrus hunting occurs primarily during the summer months of July and August, and often coincides with the bearded seal hunt. Similar to seal, more recent subsistence use area data (1997-2006) for walrus show Barrow harvesters traveling farther offshore than in previous years, particularly in the area north, northwest, and northeast of Point Barrow. Subsistence use areas for 1997-2006 extend nearly as far as 90 miles from shore, although residents more commonly reported traveling no farther than 40 or 50 miles. During interviews in 2006, respondents provided similar observations regarding changes in the ice pack and the resulting expansion of subsistence use areas (see discussion above, under “Seals”).

Wainwright offshore use areas extend up to approximately 50 miles from the shore.


Wainwright subsistence use area data related to the marine environment are available for lifetime to 1979, unknown (prior to 1981), 1988-1989, and 1998-2007, and are shown on Maps 7 through 13. These maps include use areas for marine mammals (in general), beluga whale, bowhead whale, polar bear, seal, and walrus. Use areas for nearshore subsistence uses such as fish, waterfowl, and marine invertebrates are not included in this report but are provided in SRB&A. Wainwright offshore use areas for all resources, depicted on Map 7, show marine use areas extending up to approximately 50 miles offshore; this extent is also indicated on Map 8, which shows 1998-2007 use areas for marine mammals. There is limited current subsistence use area information available for Wainwright (the 1998- 2007 data are limited to “marine mammals” and do not provide data for individual species), although a Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE)- funded Global Positioning System (GPS) study monitoring offshore hunting activities in Point Lay and Wainwright is ongoing.

Beluga Whales

Map 9 shows Wainwright beluga whale use areas for the lifetime to 1979, unknown (prior to 1981), and 1988-1989 time periods. The lifetime to 1979 use areas extend beyond Point Lay in the south, as far as Peard Bay in the north and offshore up to 20 miles. Use areas from the 1980s depict residents hunting beluga whales closer to shore. North Slope Borough (NSB) harvest data for 2002-2003 show nearly all beluga whale harvests occurring in July and August, although earlier seasonal round data show hunting of this resource to occur as early as April, during the bowhead whale hunt.

arc-bowhead-2-250-RC.jpgBowhead Whales

Bowhead whale use areas for the time periods lifetime to 1979, unknown (prior to 1981), and 1988-1989 are depicted on Map 10. According to the lifetime data, Wainwright harvesters reported searching for bowhead whales as far south as Point Lay and beyond, and as far north as Peard Bay. The 1988-1989 use area data show bowhead whale use areas extending to Icy Cape in the south and offshore from Peard Bay in the north. During both time periods (lifetime to 1979 and 1988-1989), hunters reported traveling no farther than 20 miles offshore. The use area data on Map 10 generally focus on spring bowhead whale hunting efforts. Recent research in Wainwright indicates that a number of whaling crews currently hunt during the fall and SRB&A and ASR (Forthcoming) will document GPS hunting tracks for bowhead whales.

Polar Bears

Wainwright polar bear use areas for the lifetime to 1979 and 1988-1989 time periods are shown on Map 11. Polar bear hunting areas occur relatively close to shore and extend south as far as Icy Cape or Point Lay and north to the Peard Bay area; the reported use areas generally occurred within 10 miles of shore. According to Ivie and Schneider (1979), while polar bear hunting occurred year-round, hunting efforts intensified during the late fall through early spring months and were located close to shore. Recent NSB data for the 2002- 2003 study year show Wainwright polar bear harvests (of six polar bears) occurring in August, December, March, and May.


Seal use areas are shown on Map 12 for the lifetime to 1979, unknown (prior to 1981), and 1988-1989 time periods. Wainwright use areas for seals show hunters traveling offshore over 40 miles (during the 1988-1989 time period) and traveling south as far as Cape Sabine (lifetime use areas) and north as far as Peard Bay. As with Barrow, the distance traveled in search of seals depends on the availability of the seals and the location of the ice pack. Residents travel farther offshore during the summer months (July and August) when their primary target is bearded seal; 100 percent of 2002-2003 bearded seal harvests occurred from June through August and 85.7 percent occurred in July. Winter hunting is closer to shore and is primarily limited to ringed seal. Approximately 75 percent of 2002-2003 ringed seal harvests occurred from December through May. Map 12 shows the more recent use area data (1988-1989) extending farther offshore than the earlier (1979 and 1981) data.


Wainwright walrus use areas are available for the lifetime to 1979, unknown (prior to 1981), and 1988-1989 time periods and are shown on Map 13. These data show walrus hunting activities occurring in the Chukchi Sea south from Wainwright to Point Lay (lifetime data) and north to the Skull Cliff/Nulavik area. Walrus hunting efforts during the 1988-1989 time period extended offshore over 40 miles from Wainwright, farther than the lifetime to 1979 and 1981 data, which extended no more than 20 miles offshore. As with bearded seal, the majority of walrus hunting occurs in July and August; 79.8 percent of 2002-2003 walrus harvests occurred during the month of July.


Available subsistence use area data for Barrow and Wainwright show residents traveling offshore in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas at varying distances for a number of subsistence resources. Barrow subsistence use areas extend a maximum of nearly 90 miles offshore (although most use areas were reported within 50 or 60 miles offshore) and Wainwright subsistence use areas extend a maximum of approximately 50 miles offshore (Maps 1 and 7). Current resource-specific data for Wainwright are limited and therefore the extent of Wainwright offshore subsistence activities could be greater than depicted in existing data. Residents of both communities generally reported traveling greater distances offshore during the summer seal and walrus hunt, which occurs primarily during the months of July and August. Barrow hunters also travel substantial distances offshore during the fall bowhead whale hunt in October. In a number of cases, more recent subsistence use area data showed residents traveling greater distances offshore than in the past. North Slope residents have reported changes in recent years related to ice conditions and the availability of marine mammals and have observed that these changes have resulted in some hunters traveling farther to harvest subsistence resources.

Media Contact: Mary Engel

Topics: Oceans, Environment

Project: Protecting Life in the Arctic