May 22, 2008

Makah whale hunting


The Makah Indian Nation’s proposal to hunt gray whales has fewer negative impacts than five of six alternatives considered in a draft federal study released May 9. The National Marine Fisheries Service conducted the study of the possible impacts of Makah resuming gray whale hunts, in response to the nation’s request for a waiver of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. It is accepting public comment on the study until July 8. 

NMFS developed alternatives to consider based on Makah’s proposal and on comments submitted at public hearings in 2005. One of the alternatives is to take no action on Makah’s request – essentially, to deny it. But “divorcing” the Makahs from whaling would erode cultural identity and increase tensions “between [the] Makah Tribe and others, including [the]
federal government,” the study states.

In allowing the Makahs to hunt in the manner they propose, “Makah whale-hunting rituals, spiritual training, songs, dances and ceremonial activities could increase over current conditions, and regularly recur, reinforcing Makah cultural identity,” the study states.

Whale hunting is a Makah tradtion carried on for hundreds of years

“The opportunity to regularly harvest, process, share and consume whale products could increase tribal members’ sense of community. The whale-hunting ceremonies could provide an additional social framework, which could contribute to community social and spiritual stability.”

The Makahs would hunt up to four whales a year for five years.

The study’s release comes almost nine years after the Makahs’ last whale hunt and three years after their request for a waiver.

Article 4 of the Treaty of Neah Bay, signed in 1855, allows the Makahs “[t]he right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

The Makah voluntarily stopped hunting gray whales in 1926

Makah voluntarily stopped hunting gray whales in 1926 because whale populations had been depleted due to non-Native commercial whaling; the International Whaling Commission declared a moratorium on all whaling in

The gray whale was removed from the U.S. endangered species list May 5, 1995, and the Makahs hunted their first whale in more than 70 years May 17, 1999. But subsequent court decisions, in response to lawsuits filed by animal rights groups, required an environmental impact assessment before hunts could resume.

Illegal gray whale hunt last September

Five Makah men who hunted a whale Sept. 8, 2007, saying they were frustrated by delays in obtaining a permit to exercise their treaty rights and practice a hunt that is central to Makah culture. Four months earlier, the IWC renewed
Makah’s quota for the harvest of up to 20 gray whales over five years for subsistence purposes.

Frankie Gonzales, Wayne Johnson, Andrew Noel, Theron Parker and William Secor Sr. were charged in U.S. District Court with violating the MMPA and conspiring to violate the act. Each charge is punishable by a one-year jail
sentence and $100,000 fine.

On April 7, Gonzales, Parker and Secor agreed to plead guilty to harpooning and shooting a gray whale without the federal waiver. In exchange, the U.S. attorney dropped the conspiracy charge and will recommend probation and
community service. Johnson and Noel, however, pleaded no contest so they could appeal.

All five are scheduled to be sentenced June 20. They still face prosecution in Makah Tribal Court for hunting without a tribal permit, a violation of Makah’s marine mammal management plan. The maximum penalty is a year in tribal jail and a $5,000 fine.

In an earlier interview, Makah Chairman Micah McCarty called the illegal hunt “a very visible attempt to raise a treaty rights issue through civil disobedience.” He said a survey showed “at least a high 60 percent or low 70 percent” of Makah people want to have whale reintroduced into their diet. Of those that aren’t interested in eating whale meat, most believe in Makah’s treaty right to hunt.

McCarty feared the unauthorized hunt would not only jeopardize Makah’s request for a waiver, but would jeopardize treaty rights.

“We were really concerned a trial would set a precedent for usurping the treaty,” McCarty said. “I don’t think this will affect the treaty. It could have been worse.”

Instead of a judge and jury making a decision that the MMPA trumped the treaty – the Constitution calls treaties the “supreme Law of the Land” – three defendants pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count and two others will proceed to the appeals process without having admitted guilt.

Jack Fiander, a Yakama attorney for the defendants, called the result “very lenient.”

The court did, however, strike down the defense’s attempt to defend the right to hunt whales – with all of its spiritual ceremonies, preparation and rituals – under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. And Emily Langlie, spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle, said, “This case was not about a tribe’s right to hunt. This case was about an illegal hunt under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

McCarty called the court’s decision regarding the AIRFA “problematic.”

The case had no bearing on the draft environmental impact study. “Legal proceedings against the individuals are a separate matter for the federal and tribal criminal justice systems,” the study states.

The study looks at the likely impacts of whale hunts on the whale population, the Makahs, the local marine ecosystem, public safety, public sentiment regarding whales, and tourism/whale-watching.

According to the study:

* Makah proposes to hunt gray whales using a hand-thrown, toggle-point harpoon to strike the whale and a .50-caliber rifle to kill the whale; time of death is about eight minutes, but that time is expected to improve as hunters gain additional experience.

* The nation’s regulations would prohibit the striking of a whale calf or a whale accompanied by a calf, and would prohibit the hunting of a gray whale between June 1 and Nov. 30 to prevent the hunting of whales that may be
part of a seasonal resident gray whale herd.

 * Makah’s regulations would provide for detailed photographic monitoring of all landed whales, for comparison with photos in the National Marine Mammal Laboratory’s photo-identification catalog of the seasonal resident herds.

* Whale “products” would be restricted to local consumption and ceremonies.

The plan can be read online at

Public hearings on the study are scheduled for May 28, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m., in the Vern Burton Memorial Community Center, 308 E. Fourth St., Port Angeles; June 2, 6:30 – 9:30 p.m., Lake Union Park Armory-Great Hall, 860 Terry Ave.
North, Seattle; and June 5, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., in the NOAA Auditorium, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, Md.


This article first appeared at Indian Country Today. Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at

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