PAWS Magazine

Issue 38, Summer 1998

Makah whale hunt set for October

Despite challenges to cultural and subsistence justifications for their plan to kill gray whales off the Washington coast, Neah Bay’s Makah tribe is making final preparations for their hunt.

The Makah tribe of northwest Washington State is planning to kill gray whales beginning as early as October 1. PAWS has been a leading opponent of the Makah plan since the plan was first announced three years ago.

The Makah tribe was helped in their efforts by the United States government. Because gray whales were an endangered species, and therefore not allowed to be hunted, the Makah Tribe successfully petitioned to have gray whales "downgraded" to threatened species status.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) also helped the Makah do an end-run around International Whaling Commission (IWC) regulations by negotiating a back-room deal with Russia. IWC requirements stipulated that for the Makah to win approval to whale off the Washington coast, they would have to prove both a cultural and a subsistence need to justify their hunts. Apparently when it became evident that the Makah would have trouble making a case for both standards, the U.S. NMFS stepped in and negotiated with Russia for a portion of their gray whale quota.

Though central to their way of life for over a thousand years, no Makah who knew traditional whaling is alive today. The exhaustive and detailed rituals are not repeatable. In fact, the Makah have not gone whaling for over 70 years. Humpback whales were traditionally killed for food. Gray whales were most often rendered for their oil; the last hunt occurred in 1926.

Makah elders who were alive during the last Makah hunt oppose the new effort. Seven of the oldest Makah (including the very oldest living Makah—a woman in her mid-90’s) signed a letter, published in a newspaper, which decried the hunt.

The Makah plan calls for a ceremonial harpoon to be lobbed at each whale, followed by a volley from a 50 caliber antitank gun. Similar tactics are used in Russian whale hunts. The process invariably takes hours as the whales die agonizingly slow deaths. The Makah plan to kill 15 whales over the next three years, allowing for the wounding of up to 28 whales in the process.

Leading the PAWS effort against the hunt is PAWS wildlife advocate Will Anderson. Anderson has a long interest in gray whales. Beginning in the 1980s, Anderson travelled to Baja, California to study gray whales in their birthing lagoons, spending thousands of hours observing the gentle giants. "You could say I was born for this campaign," says Anderson.

Anderson consults with Alberta Thompson, a tribal elder who opposes the hunt. Because of the stand that she has taken, Thompson has been severely castigated by some members of her tribe. "Dan Greene, a Makah fisheries official, called her a slave," says Anderson, "which is about the biggest put-down you can call someone in the Makah culture." Thompson is undaunted and plans to continue the fight against the hunt.

Anderson says that this is the most critical time in the effort to prevent the hunt. PAWS needs volunteers to distribute brochures, write letters to legislators, and more. Interested people can call the PAWS Makah hotline at (425) 787-2500 ext. 890, and leave a message.

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