ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Federal officials on Tuesday were investigating the killing of a protected gray whale by Native hunters in Alaska after the massive animal strayed into a river in an area where indigenous residents rely on subsistence fishing and hunting as part of their ancient culture and traditions.
The hunters peppered the 37-foot whale with gunfire and harpoons last week until it died and sank to the bottom of the Kuskokwim River near the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Napaskiak.
The carcass was later retrieved and cut up, with 20,000 pounds of meat and blubber distributed among several villages.
Officials with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it appears to have been an unauthorized harvest of a gray whale — a species that is off-limits to hunting in Alaska, even by Natives.
"We understand that these Alaska Natives are living a subsistence lifestyle and they also depend on the ocean for their resources," said Sue Fisher of the Animal Welfare Institute.
She added, however, that "they are not allowed to take gray whales."
In a similar case, villagers in Toksook Bay killed a humpback whale last year, prompting an investigation by NOAA that did not result in prosecution.
In the current case, many residents believe the river brought subsistence food and it would violate Yup'ik culture not to accept it.
"It's right there in front of us," honorary Napaskiak chief Chris Larson told Anchorage TV station KTVA. "It's like a gift from someone to the community."
The whale meat is especially appreciated in the region this year. Much of the subsistence salmon was ruined by heavy rains that prevented the fish from drying properly for preservation of the meat, Napaskiak tribal administrator Sharon Williams said.
Subsistence hunting of smaller beluga whales is allowed in the region. And 11 Native villages farther north are authorized by the International Whaling Commission to hunt bowhead whales.
But Eastern Pacific gray whales, also called California gray whales, are protected by federal rules. The animals are a familiar sight in Alaska waters, but villagers say they've never seen them go up the Kuskokwim River.
The whales feed in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas in summer and migrate down the West Coast each winter to breed, mostly in the bays of Baja California.
They were taken off the endangered species list in 1994 and only a small number are allowed by the International Whaling Commission to be harvested by Russian hunters.
Bill Howell, fire chief in the nearby community of Bethel, declined to comment to The Associated Press. But Howell, who helped cut up the whale, told the Anchorage television station that it's important for Alaska Natives to harvest marine mammals because 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," said Howell, who owns a meat-cutting business.
Whale meat is not traditional in the area, and some locals told Bethel radio station KYUK that they would search the internet or ask relatives who live farther north how to prepare it.
Williams said she watched the meat being butchered over the weekend, and she tried whale meat herself, saying it was good raw and boiled. Before the butchering began, Larson thanked the whale for giving itself to the people, Williams said.
As the meat was being cut, people from area villages stopped by to pick some up to take home.
Follow Rachel D'Oro at https://twitter.com/rdoro