Meat and blubber from the whale killed Thursday evening in the Kuskokwim River is currently being distributed to surrounding villages. Six boats dragged the 37-foot long whale to shallow water between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday. A yellow front end loader then carried the carcass to the Napaskiak shore.
As of 7:45 p.m. Saturday, about 40 people, including elders, adults, and children, surrounded the whale while several people worked to butcher the meat.
The meat was first distributed to elders, who were seen driving away on four wheelers, carrying pieces of white blubber in trash bags.
Around 9 p.m., sections of the whale had been given to community members from Napaskiak, Atmautluak, Bethel, Akiachak, Tuluksak, and Akiak. Meat and blubber from the whale is expected to travel throughout the region.
Bethel Fire Chief Bill Howell runs a meat cutting and processing business in Bethel called Bill’s Meats. A friend asked him to come to help with the butchering. He soon arrived with knives and began carving whale steaks.
Before the whale was cut, Napaskiak Honorary Chief Chris Larson said a prayer of thanks. Then the whale was given fresh water.
Larson says the whale will be enough to feed the village, especially after a summer of low king salmon. However, there was an abundance of red and chum salmon this season.
Even though the whale has been sitting dead at the bottom of the river for several days, bystanders are saying that the meat is edible.
One woman, when asked how she would prepare the meat, said, “I’m not sure. I’m gonna start with Crisco.”
Others are Googling how to prepare the meat, or saying that they will call their friends and family up north for advice.
Whales coming up the Kuskokwim are rare, and a whale of this kind has not been seen this far inland in living memory. The whale is grey and covered in barnacles. It is not a beluga, as some earlier claimed. It may be a gray whale, but that is unconfirmed. The legal ramifications of the incident are unknown. Whales are protected under federal law and international treaty.
The killing of the whale has drawn a broad controversy that has largely played out over Facebook. Opponents say that whales are not a traditional food for the area, and that the locals who spent 90 minutes using guns, seal harpoons, and whatever they had on hand were unequipped to kill an animal of this kind.
Others have supported killing the whale, saying whatever the river brings them is subsistence food.
To avoid negative attention, many people involved with killing and/or salvaging the whale are choosing to remain anonymous.
Many people have worked around the clock since Friday morning to bring the carcass ashore. The Napaskiak Tribal Council voted to donate $500 of gas to boaters who helped with the recovery. Welders fashioned custom, four-barbed hooks from scrap metal. Ropes broke and hooks were lost as the weight of the animal overwhelmed the homemade equipment.
When it was killed, an estimated 40 to 50 boats were seen chasing and surrounding the whale. Only six to eight boats at any given time were helping to salvage it.
Joe Evon with Napaskiak Search and Rescue led the recovery effort. Mid-day Saturday he said, “Everybody that participated in taking that animal’s life should be out there helping us.”
After two days of trying, innovating, developing tools, and trying again, hooks caught deep enough in the carcass lying under 30 feet of river water. It took a half dozen boats joining the strength of their motors to finally drag the giant animal from the bottom of the Kuskokwim.
Napaskiak Tribal Administrator Sharon Williams says that the recovery was a group effort and that she’s proud of those who helped.