Baleen is made of keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails and hair. These baleen bristles are arranged in plates across the upper jaw of the whale.
Depending on the species, a baleen plate can be up to 11 ft long, and weigh up to 200 pounds. Its hairy fringes are called baleen hair.
A whale's baleen (or whalebone) plates play an important role in its feeding process. To feed, a baleen whale opens its mouth widely and scoops in dense shoals of prey (such as krill, copepods, and small fish), as well as a large volume of water. It then partly shuts its mouth and forces the water to pass out sideways through the baleen, thus leaving its prey in its mouth to be swallowed.
People formerly used baleen for making products where flexibility and strength were required, including buggy whips and parasol ribs. Synthetic materials are now used, especially plastic and fiber glass. Today baleen plates are used by indigenous people to create fine crafts.
In 1972 Congress passed the Marine Mammals Protection Act which prohibited the "taking" (killing, hunting, chasing, disturbing, or otherwise annoying) marine mammals. In 1995 the Act was amended to permit the taking of marine mammals by Alaska Natives who relied upon subsistence hunting for much of their food supply.
The two baleen plates we purchased in 2002 was from a whale taken during the winter of 2002. It was sold to interested parties since it had no food value. Each plate was engraved "Barrow, AK" by the whaling crew to show that the killing was permitted by law.
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