Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive!

Vol. VII No. 4 October 1998


Makah Whaling

by William Rossiter, CSI President


As you read this the Makah whalers may have already killed a gray whale. You may not be able to miss the images, displayed everywhere the media can reach. The whale will first be harpooned, then shot with .50 caliber rifle bullets. You have probably seen photos of the eight whalers in the red cedar canoe, but not the Makah power boats that will assist for safety and for towing the body to shore, or the probable flotilla of Coast Guard, media, and protest vessels awash in heavy seas.

This hunt is an odd blend of traditional and modern elements, a fascinating study but for the ominous portent: If the Makah kill a gray whale the United States will become a whaling nation in the eyes of the world. This will not be an aboriginal subsistence hunt and could even become commercial, according to some recent Makah statements.

It is also likely to encourage the "cultural whaling" movement all over the world. Because of the U.S., "cultural whaling" without nutritional subsistence need may become the new IWC standard. Established IWC criteria for "aboriginal subsistence whaling," based upon demonstrated nutritional and cultural needs, have been unilaterally abrogated by the United States through its contention, after a failed attempt to justify Makah subsistence needs for whale meat, that only a cultural need is required. Over a dozen countries objected when, in 1997, the U.S. exchanged bowhead whales from the U.S. Inuit quota for a number of gray whales from Russia's quota. The U.S. simply declared the Makah quota was approved for 20 gray whales killed or 33 wounded, whichever comes first over a period of five years, despite the fact that the Russian quota was for people "whose cultural and subsistence needs have been recognized." Mincing words by U.S. officials have attempted to justify abetting the Makah whalers, even as other IWC nations such as Australia and Great Britain condemned the hunt. The World Council of Whalers (WCW) was established by Makah relatives, the Canadian Nuu-chah-Nulth, to represent an alliance of cultural whalers who are both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. Partially funded by Norway and Japan their purpose is to open world wide coastal whaling based solely on "cultural" need. The Nuu-chah-Nulth Tribal Council on Vancouver Island recently asked for a whaling treaty with the Canadian government. By agreement the Makah hunters may pursue a wounded whale into Canadian waters, but shooting the .50 caliber gun there, or landing, will subject them to arrest.

In September, U.S. District Judge Franklin Burgess dismissed a lawsuit that charged that Commerce Department agencies improperly considered the environmental impact of gray whale hunting before supporting the Makah's plans before the International Whaling Commission last year. Specifically he said the Court was "not compelled to adjudicate issues of Indian rights. The issue is strictly whether the Secretary of the Department of Commerce acted arbitrarily in approving a whale quota for the Tribe." Legal or not, the U.S. government has been falling over itself to help the Makah no matter what international consequences resulted. Or the cost; direct payments to the Makah to support whaling have totaled at least $330,000, and over a million dollars was spent on security for the recent Makah Days celebration.

Tensions are rising between the Makah and the anti-whaling activists who have stationed themselves in the Neah Bay area. Starting with a "practice" hunt a day before the October 1st opening date, there have already been several "false alarms" as activists rushed to the scene of an alleged whale hunt that wasn't happening. During the night of October 6, there was a confrontation between activists and a Makah boat carrying two tribal members and three members of a German film crew. Conflicting reports make it difficult to tell exactly what happened, but claims of boats without running lights, blinding spotlights and other hostile behavior show how dangerous the situation is. Presumably, when the Makah begin an actual whale hunt, they will follow the Coast Guard rules by broadcasting a radio message at least an hour in advance, and the lead boat will fly a numeral pennant five flag. This will activate the Coast Guard's exclusion zone, which means that the Coast Guard will attempt to keep all non-Makah vessels at least 500 yards from the whaling boats, except for one media pool vessel which will be allowed in to observe and document the hunt. It is reasonable to expect the Makah to follow this protocol, because it offers them the best protection against harassment and potentially violent confrontations.

As much as we oppose the killing of any whales, CSI is one of several organizations that rejects the tactics of force and confrontation and has pursued a respectful and peaceful effort to find a workable solution to this dilemma. We have pursued this policy through the publication of our "Open Letter to the Makah Whaling Commission", through communications with the Makah, and through peaceful protest rallies such as the one described in the article that follows.


Go to next article: "Peace to the Whales" or: Table of Contents.

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