Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVII No. 1 - January 2008

The Makah Whale Kill:

Is there any light shining from such a dark moment?

By Kate O'Connell, CSI Board

One hundred and fifty years ago, a lighthouse was built on the remote island of Tatoosh, on land belonging to the Makah tribe. The light guards the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and helped navigators wend their way through the rough, rocky waters off the reservation at Neah Bay. James Swann, an anthropologist who lived with the Makah tribe for a period of three years in the latter half of the 1800s, called the lighthouse "the bright star of Tatoosh". Tatoosh once served as a summer home for some of the Makah, who would fish off its shores, and the island has special spiritual significance for the Tribe.

Last autumn, a different kind of spotlight shined on the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, when five Makah tribal members killed a gray whale in apparent violation of both US and Tribal law. The five members (Frankie Gonzales, Wayne Johnson, Andy Noel, Theron Parker and William Secor Sr.) have pleaded not guilty to the charges that have been brought against them by both the US government and the Makah Tribal Court. The kill, which took place on September 8th, 2007 has been especially criticized by the tribe's marine mammal biologist, Jonathan Scordino.

In a scathing report of the incident, Scordino accused the five Makah of not knowing how to shoot a whale humanely; the animal suffered for more than 9 ½ hours before it eventually slipped below the water and died. According to the biologist, the whale had been harpooned four times and shot at least 16 times, and Scordino accused the five of not even knowing how to use the rifles they had brought with them; one of the rifles was even lost overboard in the confusion of the kill. The hunters eventually ran out of ammunition, and the whale lingered for hours before sinking beneath the surface. Scordino believes that the gray whale likely died of internal bleeding due to gunshot wounds.

On November 27th, the five were charged under US federal law on three counts: conspiracy to hunt a whale, whaling in violation of the federal Whaling Convention Act, and harassing and killing the whale. The five pleaded not guilty to all charges and the case will be heard in the US District Court in Tacoma on March 18th, 2008. If convicted on these charges, the hunters can be fined a maximum of $100,000, and face a one year prison term, with an additional year of parole.

The Makah Tribal Court has also charged Gonzales, Noel, Johnson, Parker and Secor with violating tribal law, and the tribal hearing took place on the 11th of December. The men have been accused of violating the Makah Tribe's Gray Whale Management Plan, violating various state and federal laws, and reckless endangerment for firing high-powered rifles over water. If the tribal court finds the defendants guilty, they face a maximum of one year in tribal prison, a $5,000 fine and a potential three year loss of their treaty rights (which would include the right to fish). The tribal case will be heard on January 22nd.

In both the federal and tribal hearings, the five defendants pleaded not guilty, and were released without posting bail.

The Makah have tried to justify their desire to hunt whales by arguing that they had a continual history of whaling into the early 20th century. Yet at almost the very time that Swann's "bright star of Tatoosh" was being built, the Makah turned away from whaling in order to pursue other economic ventures. Historian T.T. Waterman wrote that the Makah left off whaling for a period of decades in order to pursue more profitable activities, including pelagic fur sealing. CSI continues to urge the Makah Tribe to consider ending their current pursuit of gray whale hunting, and turn instead to the more lucrative, non-consumptive use of whales through well-managed whale watch tourism.

If there is any light shining out from such a dark incident, it might be that the National Marine Fisheries Service seems to have further delayed the environmental impact statement (EIS) process that is required before NMFS can grant the Makah permission to hunt. In 2002, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had ordered that no gray whales could be killed until the tribe had obtained a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NMFS had been in the final stages of drafting the EIS, and this seems to have been put on hold for at least some time until the court findings against the five have been determined. Hopefully, this delay will give NMFS the time to reconsider what has been a contentious and mismanaged whale kill.

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