The Makah tribe, located in Neah Bay, Washington state, USA, is preparing to kill gray whales for the first time in seventy years, beginning in October 1998. Through parliamentary trickery the United States Government claims to have obtained a quota for the Makah through the IWC: four gray whales killed and "landed" per year for the next five years, and up to 33 "strikes" with weapons.
This year, 1998, the Makah are allowed to wound a total of ten whales in the process of "landing" four. Though the tribe is divided over the whaling, pro-whalers are in control of the tribal government. Opposition to the whaling includes many tribal elders.
The Makah pro-whaling faction, using at least $260,000 of public tax dollars to date, intend to kill the whales within the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which extends offshore of NW Washington.
The Makah intend to motor and paddle out to sea, accompanied by several vessels.
One person will throw a ceremonial harpoon, then an accompanying modern vessel will use a 50-caliber antitank gun to try and kill the whale.
Gray whales undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal. Born in Mexico, migrating near the coasts of the U.S., Canada, into the far north to Alaska and Siberia, gray whales number approximately 23,000 and were removed from the U.S. endangered species list in 1994. Gray whales have become accustomed to humans and their boats and do not flee. In fact, they are well known for approaching humans in a curious and friendly manner.
Under IWC definitions, aboriginal quotas are supposed to be given to identifiable cultural groups who have (a) an unbroken active whaling effort; (b) a cultural need; (c) a nutritional/subsistence need. The Makah have not whaled for seventy years. Clearly, they do not meet IWC criteria as subsistence whalers. Their culture has certainly survived and arguably is thriving without whaling.
Life continues in Neah Bay
Approximately 1,600 tribal members live in Neah Bay. Just around the corner from the open ocean, Neah Bay displays plenty of signs that Makah culture is still alive and doing better each day, though unemployment remains a serious problem. Well connected to the city of Port Angeles and boasting a new $7.8 million marina, a world class tribal museum, lighted tennis courts, Head Start through high school buildings, a grocery store, motels, Federal Express and other amenities, the Makah town of Neah Bay has ample access to the modern conveniences of life.
Clearly, subsistence is not dependent on killing gray whales. To outsiders, it is readily apparent that many meaningful jobs could easily be created in the eco-cultural-whale watching sector. Live whales are more valuable than dead ones.
In fact, a young gray whale was caught in a carelessly set Makah net in 1996. Not knowing how to cut up a whale, the Makah enlisted the help of an Alaskan Inuit. The meat was distributed to many Makah villagers.
Despite all the fanfare, most of the oily, unsavory flesh reportedly ended up in the town's dump; two years later, more whale meat languishes unwanted in tribal fisheries freezers. The only thing the Makah could do with four whales is waste them.
The aboriginal-commercial connection
The Makahs' cultural cousins on Vancouver Island, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth, numbering 5,962, have also stated their intent to resume whaling and are not ruling out commercial killing. They are serious, and they are connected to the commercial whalers. In 1997 they founded the World Council of Whalers (WCW) with twenty-percent of the startup costs paid by Japan and Norway. Their attitude is summed up by a quote from the WCW spokesman Matt Stabler who in Canada's Globe and Mail stated, "The anthropomorphism of whales is what I call the Bambi complex. They are just clever animals, and there's no reason they can't be hunted." On March 5 and 6, 1998, 68 whalers from all over the globe, including the WCW Vancouver Island Nuu-Chah-Nulth arrived in Neah Bay for whaling ceremonies and dances. The Makah have already met with local, county, state and several federal law enforcement agencies in an effort to ensure that protests will not be allowed anywhere near the whale killing.
Representatives from the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), The Humane Society of the US, Whales Alive and a tribal member recently met with tribal chair Ben Johnson to discuss whale watching. Inquiries to members of Congress seeking to find a solution amenable to all parties continue. But, as Will Anderson, of PAWS recently stated, "We are running out of time and options. Some organizations are assuming the worst and that a confrontation on the water will occur in October. We are preparing educational material that will alert the public to the Makah mistake-in-progress."