SEATTLE––The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration fisheries division on March 7, 2015 published a draft environmental impact study that may allow the Makah tribe, of Neah Bay, Washington, to resume killing gray whales in Puget Sound.
Announcing intent to resume whaling in 1995, after a lapse of 73 years, the Makah legally killed one gray whale in 1999, and illegally killed another in 2007.
Acknowledged Donna Dorn, NOAA associate deputy administrator for the West Coast region, “This is a first step in a public process that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales.”
Could allow killing 24 whales in 6-year interval
The NOAH draft impact study proposes six options for gray whale management, ranging from complete prohibition of whaling to allowing the Makah to kill up to 24 gray whales within a six-year interval, and to wound as many as three whales per year who for whatever reason could not be dispatched and retrieved.
After a public comment period, explained Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton, “NOAA will produce a final document with a preferred option. The agency will then decide on whether the hunt can resume and, if so, under what rules.
“The study notes that a decision against approving the harvest would be unlikely to reduce the number of gray whales killed each year by hunters,” Bernton added. “That’s because the annual catch limits are set by the International Whaling Commission. Under a bilateral agreement, the [Makah] quota,” if not used to kill whales in Puget Sound, “would likely be transferred to Chukotka natives who hunt more than 100 of the gray whales each year off remote stretches of the Russian coast.”
“Definitely happy” says Makah chair
“We are definitely happy that we have reached this point,” Makah Tribal Council chair Timothy Greene told Bernton. “It has been a very long process. Whaling is strongly connected to our spiritual existence. We’re not going anywhere, and this is important for us and generations to come.“
Responded Animal Welfare Institute wildlife biologist D.J. Schubert, “We recognize the cultural importance of whales to the tribes, and intend no disrespect, but whaling is inherently cruel. These are incredibly intelligent, sentient creatures and they do suffer.”
The NOAA draft environmental-impact statement was produced in response to a 2004 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires such a study to be completed before the Makah can legally exercise the right to kill whales that the tribe claims under the the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, which brought the tribe into the U.S.
The 2004 verdict upheld a December 2002 ruling by a three-judge panel from the same court that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act in permitting Makah whaling.
“The plaintiffs in the case–the Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the U.S., and other groups and individuals–argued that the government failed to adequately study the ways in which the Makah whale hunt could set a dangerous precedent and adversely affect the environment,” explained Fund for Animals spokesperson Tracy McIntire.
The Fund merged into HSUS a year later.
Seeking to kill whales for 20 years
Divided over whether to further pursue a resumption of whaling, the Makah Tribal Council had in 2003 cut back allocations to the scheme, and for a time dissolved the Makah Whaling Commission, which had sought to kill gray whales ever since the whales were removed from protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1994. The Makah Whaling Commission was later reconstituted.
Gray whales had been federally protected since 1936, 30 years before the U.S. had any blanket form of endangered species law, but were deemed to have recovered to their historical numbers––about 20,000.
The original Makah proposal to resume whaling, issued only hours after gray whales came off the U.S. endangered species list in 1995, spoke bluntly of reviving the one-time Makah commercial whaling industry, more than seven decades after Makah tribe members had last killed a whale, and about nine decades since whaling was last a viable tribal industry.
Hoped to sell whale meat to Japan
NOAA in 1997 authorized the Makah to kill as many as five whales a year through 2002, under a annual quota of 140 shared among Russian and U.S. aboriginal tribes. Breach Marine Protection and co-plaintiffs argued unsuccessfully in a 1998 federal suit that the IWC did not mean for the Makah to have part of the quota, since the resolution allotting it stipulated that it was for the use of tribes dependent upon whaling for subsistence–which the Makah are not.
The Makah were allowed to resume killing gray whales on condition that none of the meat or byproducts could be sold, though potlatch trade with other tribes was allowed. But frequent statements by Makah Tribal Whaling Commission spokespersons left no doubt that the tribe hoped to eventually export whale meat to Japan.
Japanese delegations to the annual meetings of the International Whaling Commission, meanwhile, repeatedly sought––unsuccessfully––to exploit the whaling quota allocating to the Makah as a precedent for the IWC to authorize “cultural” whaling by coastal Japanese communities.
After making desultory attempts to kill a gray whale in October and November 1998, Makah whaling resumed in earnest in May 1999.
Sea Shepherds vs. Makah
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the first animal-and/or-habitat protection organization to respond to the Makah whaling proposal in 1995, had maintained an on-the-water vigil at Neah Bay almost continuously since September 1998, and had relocated their global headquarters from California to Friday Harbor, Washington, to be closer to the scene.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson had evaded the FBI in 1973 to enter the besieged American Indian Movement encampment at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, to serve as a volunteer medic. While there, Watson has often recounted, he had a dream that a Lakota elder interpreted as meaning he should devote his life to saving whales––as he has.
Watson rejected Makah arguments for resuming whaling as a cultural prerogative. “I don’t care if the whale is being hunted by Norwegians, Japanese, Tongans, New Zealanders, or the Makah,” Watson said. “We will oppose it.”
The Sea Shepherds and other activist organizations invested weeks of energetic effort to prevent whales from being killed, but all were many miles away when a gray whale was finally killed on May 17, 1999.
Explained a Sea Shepherd media release, “The Sea Shepherd patrol boat Sirenian had gone to the San Juan Islands to refuel and pick up three more small vessels [to replace three the U.S. Coast Guard had confiscated to protect the Makah whalers]. To evade activists, the Makah went out on an early tide,” instead of later in the day, as they did previously.
First whale down
At 6:55 that morning, a gray whale spy-hopped beside the Makah whaling canoe and looked directly at the killers. As documented by a KING-TV/Northwest Cable News helicopter, Makah harpooner Theron Parker stabbed the whale before she had any evident sense of danger. Putting up no fight, trying to duck under the bow of the canoe, she was then stabbed by a second Makah, Donny Swan, 23, and was shot with a .50-caliber machine gun from the speed boat used to tow the canoe. She took about 10 minutes to die.
“It was easy,” boasted Makah whaling chaplain Darrell Markishtum to Lynda V. Mapes of the Seattle Times.
The age and conduct of the whale brought speculation that she was J.J., a gray whale who was rescued and rehabilitated by SeaWorld San Diego after stranding nearby in January 1997. About three days old then, she became quite trusting of humans. She was returned to the ocean on March 31, 1998, outfitted with two radio transponders–but she lost them both within days.
After sinking once in 25 feet of water, due to inept carcass retrieval, the dead whale was pulled back to the surface by a fishing boat and dragged to shore at Neah Bay, as the whalers blasted air horns and the Makah schools shut for an impromptu holiday.
Makah tribe members were videotaped dancing on her remains at an all-night party, while a hired Aleut butcher hacked off strips of her flesh.
“Hey, we need some Makah over here!” the Aleut reportedly called at one point when left to work almost alone.
Second whale down
Both U.S. Vice President Al Gore and President Bill Clinton were in Seattle only hours either way of the whale-killing, in part to promote Gore’s bid to succeed Clinton in the White House. Neither commented on the whale-killing, but it was a major step toward the global resumption of full-scale commercial whaling that the Clinton/Gore administration had quietly pursued since taking office, in keeping with their endorsement of “sustainable use” wildlife management.
During the Clinton/Gore administration the National Marine Fisheries Service and other federal agencies spent lavishly in support of Makah whaling, also reflecting the Clinton/Gore alliance with Native American casino gambling interests. Those interests poured money into the 2000 Gore campaign to succeed Clinton. When Republican candidate George W. Bush narrowly defeated Gore, Makah clout in the White House was interrupted.
But as the eight-year Bush administration appeared likely to be succeeded by another Democratic administration, Makah tribal whaling captain Wayne Johnson and four other Makah–Theron Parker, Andy Noel, Billy Secor and Frank Gonzales Jr.–on September 8, 2007 killed a whale without a permit and without tribal authorization or awareness.
“Crew members plunged at least five stainless steel whaling harpoons into the animal. Then they shot it,” wrote Seattle Times staff reporter Lynda V. Mapes. “The Coast Guard, alerted to the hunt by onlookers, was on the scene within hours. Johnson and the others quickly found themselves in handcuffs,” recounted Mapes. “The Coast Guard confiscated the gun and their boats, and cut the whale, harpoons and all, loose to drift on the current. By evening, the whale was dead, and sank out of sight. After questioning, the Coast Guard turned the whalers over to tribal police.”
The U.S. District Court in Tacoma in June 2008 sentenced Johnson to serve five months in prison. Noel, his nephew, was sentenced to serve three months. Gonzales, Parker and Secor each received two years on probation.
All five were also ordered to perform community service by helping the Makah tribal marine biologist to conduct a marine mammal survey.
“The penalty essentially is to go whale watching,” commented AWI biologist D.J. Shubert.
Whalers regained momentum in 2008
The Makah campaign to resume whaling regained momentum later in 2008, when NOAA released a draft impact report that was withdrawn in 2012, after four years of debate.
Explained Bernton, “The vast majority of the Pacific gray whales migrate between winter breeding grounds off Mexico and summer feeding grounds off Alaska and northeast Russia,” passing Neah Bay, home of the Makah, en route both north and south.
However, “By 2012, there were new concerns about the effects of a hunt on an endangered stock of an estimated 140 gray whales who live in the western Pacific off Asia,” Bernton summarized. “Through satellite tracking, scientists learned that some of them journey to the waters off the U.S. west coast. There was also more information about a small stock of gray whales who stay off the west coast, rather than joining other grays in the long annual migrations. The new 1,229-page draft study includes the latest research on all of the Pacific gray whale stocks.”
Sea Shepherds might get a boost
Ironically, a NOAA decision favoring resumed Makah whaling might economically benefit the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society more than the Makah. The U.S. office of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is still based in Friday Harbor, but has had limited opportunity to participate in high-profile campaigns since the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2012 ordered Sea Shepherd vessels to remain at least 500 feet from Japanese whaling vessels, including in Antarctic waters, which the International Whaling Commission has designated a whale sanctuary.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson then transferred most Sea Shepherd Conservation Society assets and control of the organization to Sea Shepherd Australia, but the 9th Circuit held that this did not remove the matter from U.S. jurisdiction. A three-judge panel from the 9th Circuit on December 20, 2014 ordered a court-appointed commissioner to assess penalties against Watson and others for waging alleged piracy and terrorism against Japanese whalers.
A resumption of Makah whaling could give the Sea Shepherds a high-profile campaign issue practically in the back yard of the organization, which already has relatively strong public recognition and donor sympathy.