Hunting for Nachiqs at the Top of the World

Hello my friends!  I have been quite busy since my last post!  This past weekend I went out onto the ice to hunt for ringed seals.  In the Inupiaq language, ringed seals are called “Nachiqs”.  A very dear friend took me and a couple of graduate students out onto the ice with him hunting for ringed seals.  Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972,  Alaska’s indigenous people are permitted to subsistence hunt marine mammals.  The ice has still not gone out, so we walked out onto the ice.  I completely trust my native friends because they have a lifetime of experience understanding the different kinds of snow and ice, and they know whether or not the ice is safe to cross.

I want to clarify some common misconceptions about subsistence hunting of seals and walruses:

1.  The hunting of seals is not a random process-these hunters are very experienced in the identification of what seals are most suited for their food and clothing needs.  Certain seals are avoided-for instance they do not take seal pups.  Furthermore, old fat males referred to as “stinkers” are not taken, for the quality of blubber and meat is greatly compromised.  The natives say these animals carcasses smell like diesel fuel.  To kill one of these animals would be a waste of life!  I remember once how upset my friend was when he thought he may have shot a “stinker”-I honestly thought he was going to cry.  He definitely had a sinking feeling in his stomach.  Much to our delight when we butchered the seal his fears were put to rest-it was not a “stinker”.

2.  The stick that you see in the pictures is not used to kill the seals-the sharp edge of the stick is used to judge the thickness of the ice to make sure that the ice is thick enough to support one walking on it.  The hook on the other end of the stick is used to help retrieve the seal in the event that is slips back into its breathing hole after it is killed.

3.  Contrary to the television ads that are run by certain animal welfare groups, the Inupiat do not club the seals to death with a stick!

4.  Inupiat hunters do not hunt for “trophies” !  These animals provide anywhere from 70-80% of their dietary intake.

5.  The meat and the hide from the seal is shared with members of the community who are unable to hunt.  My friend often takes the meat to the nursing home to feed the elderly.  He also informs people on the VHF radio that he has seal meat available for people.

You will note that my friend is wearing white clothing-this is to blend in with the snow and to prevent the seals from being alerted to the presence of humans.

Breathing hole.  It is hard to age seals based upon examination of their teeth because use of their teeth to maintain their breathing hole introduces premature wear.  During this time of year before breakup, the ringed seal will spend a considerable amount of time hauled out on the ice, basking in the sun.  We see more seals basking with west winds.  Right now, the ringed seals are molting.  It is thought that the combination of basking in the sun and warmer temperatures enhance new hair growth.

The seals are very wary of humans when hauled out onto the ice.  They are frequently seen bobbing their heads up and down to examine their surroundings for potential predators.  In the event of an approaching predator or human, they quickly enter the water.

The following pictures are from a ringed seal that we saw this past Saturday.  He was not hunted because he was a big fat male.  He seemed less wary of us.  These photos were taken at a distance of about 25 yards.  I was able to get a good look at his face.

On Saturday, my friend got two ringed seals.  One sub-adult male and one sub-adult female.  I took measurements on the ice, including blubber thickness and we butchered the seals on the ice.  We were on the lookout for polar bears, as we had seen fresh tracks on the beach.  I returned to the lab to conduct a necropsy on the pluck and collect tissues for my research, the NSB Wildlife Department, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and two graduate students from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

UAF graduate student Sara Carroll taking notes.  Sara is doing isotope studies to analyze growth and foraging behavior.  Her research is very interesting.  She is specifically collecting claws and whiskers to determine what the ringed seals are eating and investigating how their diets might be changing over the years using claws and whiskers collected from previous  subsistence-harvested seals.

Headed off the ice and back to the lab.

A well-deserved rest for my dear friend and colleague, Billy Adams.  While I went back to the lab to necropsy and collect tissues from the pluck, he went home to continue butchering the meat.  He then made an announcement on the VHF to invite people to come to his home and get seal meat from him.  Billy has always been so kind and generous to his fellow people and to me.  Not many people get to accompany subistence hunters while they are hunting for their food.  I feel very honored that he has chosen to include me in his hunting activities.  I am deeply indebted to him for allowing an outsider to partake in this special tradition!  Quyanaqpak!

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