Independent photojournalists Will Rose and Kajsa Sjölander were on Alaska’s North Slope in November to document traditional whaling by the native Inupiat people and found themselves at the height of a highly charged mayoral election season, with whaling and a gargantuan new Shell oil drilling project at stake.
Check out a fascinating photo gallery of images from their trip, exclusive to the Los Angeles Times.
The two were on hand as Charlotte Brower became the first female mayor for Alaska’s North Borough, a regional municipality that covers the north part of the state, a vast terrain with only eight small communities comprising about 10,000 mostly Inupiat Eskimos. The North Borough mayoralty, including the town of Barrow, has significant influence regarding federal decisions about offshore oil drilling and other resource uses affecting the area.
Royal Dutch Shell has already received some permits to begin drilling in the Chukchi Sea in 2012 but has been dogged by resistance such as a 2007 lawsuit by outgoing mayor Edward Itta that challenged the environmental effects of drilling and any potential spill –- all very real in the wake of the large Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
Drilling in Arctic waters is subject to many technical hurdles, but receding ice packs resulting from global warming have made drilling more enticing.
Though Brower is expected to continue to have relatively friendly relations with Shell, ConocoPhillips and other oil companies who are looking to drill off the coast, there were marked differences between her and the second-place finisher, former five-term mayor George Ahmaogak Sr. Notably, Brower made a point of declaring that she was anti-drilling and the borough needs someone to “stand up to the oil companies.” Her husband works with the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Ahmaogak, who says he too is against drilling but wants to make sure the community continues to receive millions of dollars in oil revenue, was a former Alaska community affairs manager for Shell. In the North Borough, however, lines of allegiance are quite hard to draw; Ahmaogak’s wife is a former head of the whaling commission. Subsequently, the race was tight, with Brower winning 1,022 votes to Ahmaogak’s 960.
Rose, who is English, and Sjölander, who is Swedish, have spent the last three years documenting the effects of climate change on the polar regions. They call their project 70°, because most of their work has turned out to be along the 70th parallel -– cutting through parts of the Arctic Ocean, Canada, Russia, Greenland, the United States and north Scandinavia.
“The trip to Alaska seemed a logical progression, as Shell have received the preliminary permits to drill in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas in 2012,” wrote Rose and Sjölander in an email to The Times from their home outside Gothenberg, Sweden. “At the same time, the Inupiat hunters are noticing changes in climate, sea ice and increasing numbers of polar bears are coming to shore around Kaktovik.
“Every autumn, polar bears come to Kaktovik in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to feed on the remains of bowhead whales from the traditional Inupiat harvest, but in recent years they have come in much larger numbers. Scientists are using DNA from hair snares to determine which bears show up in Kaktovik, and for how long. This information can help wildlife managers minimize human-bear conflicts, and understand how the animals are faring as climate change reduces the amount of time they can spend on the sea ice hunting their preferred prey, seals.”
The Inupiat hunt bowhead whales and are allowed 80 strikes on the whales during the fall hunt. A strike is an attack on a whale, though an animal sometimes escapes. In 2010 the community took 46 whales, which they split among themselves for food according to traditional distribution formulas.
Environmental concerns and protection of the traditional whaling culture are definitely top of mind in the region. The two journalists found that the small town of Point Hope was particularly active in fighting offshore drilling plans.
“The tribal government of Point Hope, backed by a group of 12 environmental organizations and Earth Justice, have challenged the validity of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement’s conditional approval of Shell’s exploration plan. The decision has now been delayed in the courts again till December. The petition states that the BOEMRE decision violates the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Former president of the Point Hope tribal government, Caroline Cannon, has fought the offshore plans for over five years,” write Rose and Sjölander.
The pair penned a story about their travels in the region and the politics around the election, which may be part of their upcoming 70° website. In that story, Point Hope city Mayor Steve Oomittuk told them, “The animals make us who we are; they’re our clothing, our shelter, our food, our spirituality, a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. Without the animals, we aren’t who we are, we are not the people of Point Hope.”
Rose said he felt that an embezzlement charge swung the election. “I think that Ahmoagak’s wife, Maggie, being charged with embezzling $475,000 from the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission played a part,” he wrote. “She served as the group’s executive director for 17 years until 2007. When she got fired after the financial irregularities were uncovered, George was working for Shell at the same time. The Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission is supposed to protect the interests of the subsistence whaling community.”
The amount of money at stake is enormous. A Shell-commissioned study by consulting company Northern Economics and the University of Alaska Anchorage estimates that new drilling plans could generate $176 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue over a 45-year period from 2012 to 2057. Of that, $3.7 billion would go to the North Slope Borough.
Both Rose and Sjölander hope their futures includes a lot more snowy photos: “Our original idea was to circumnavigate the 70th parallel in 1 – 2 years, by skiing, sled or whatever means necessary. That sadly remains a dream, but we do our best by saving up and hoping to get commissions that allow us to continue with our project.”
Photo: The Brower family of Barrow, Alaska, welcome community elders for a feast in their home after taking a bowhead whale during the fall subsistence hunt. Recent North Slope Borough elections reflected concerns over new proposed offshore oil drilling that could threaten sea life. Credit: Will Rose and Kajsa Sjolander