PAWS Magazine

Issue 39, Fall 1998

Makah Whaling Timeline

Mid-1800s and the 2000 years prior The five tribes that now constitute the Makah live and hunt in desolate Neah Bay, on the northwest tip of Washington state. Throughout much of their history, a significant portion of Makah diet is derived from the sea. Makah eat seal, humpback and minke whales, and occasionally gray whale (which were mainly hunted for their oil). By the 1800s, most of the gray whale hunting is done for trading purposes.

1855 Washington Territory Governor Issac Stevens signs a treaty with the Makah. Article 4 of the treaty secured Makah whaling and fishing rights: "The right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations is further secured to said Indians in common with all citizens of the United States...." Article 13 of the treaty addressed issues of Makah trade: "The said tribe finally agrees not to trade at Vancouver’s Island or elsewhere out of the dominions of the United States..."

1856 Captain James Scammons discovers the gray whale birthing lagoons in Baja California. He immediately sets about slaughtering gray whales for their oil. The populations of gray whales are greatly reduced.

1860-1900 In 1860 the Makah voluntarily stop whaling for an entire generation. The development of cottonseed and rapeseed oils pushes down the price of whale oil considerably. The Makah instead focus their hunting efforts on the highly profitable fur seal trade. Only when government regulations curtail the seal trade do the Makah resume hunting whales, around 1890. During this same 40-year time period, whale hunters off the coast of California slowly, haphazardly decimate the gray whale populations.

1900-1926 The Makah periodically hunt humpback and gray whales. A huge whaling industry springs up around Vancouver Island, and further decimates whale populations. In 1926 Makah whalers participate in their last recorded whale hunt.

1946 The International Whaling Commission (IWC) is formed by whaling nations to regulate the hunting of the world’s dwindling whale populations. The IWC fails miserably to effectively control world whale hunting, mostly because Japan, Norway, Iceland, and the Soviet Union consistently ignore IWC quotas and rulings. Gray whale populations continue to suffer, particularly at the hands of Russian whalers (one Russian factory ship alone, the Aleut, kills 471 gray whales between 1938 and 1947).

1961 The zenith year for world whaling. 66,090 whales are killed on the world’s oceans.

1969 Alarmed at both nuclear testing and the continued decimation of the world’s whales, Greenpeace is formed. In their organization’s early years, Greenpeace members regularly put themselves in flimsy boats between illegal harpooners and whales.

1973 Gray whales are listed along with eight other whales on the U.S. Endangered Species list. (All U.S. whaling had been banned the previous year as a provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.)

1960s - 1970s An increasing number of the members of the IWC, including the United States, begin adopting anti-whaling stances, and start making efforts to use the IWC to stop whaling, not just regulate it.

1982 After a decade of disussion, the IWC passes a historic moratorium, banning all world commercial whaling beginning with the 1985/86 season. The moratorium allows limited hunting for indigenous people who have a subsistence need for whale meat and an unbroken history of hunting. It also allowed for limited "scientific research" hunts of non-threatened species.

1989-1994 Several members of the Makah tribe begin discussing the possibility of a return to whaling. The problem for the Makah is that both the whales that the Makah had mainly traditionally hunted, the humpback and the gray, are listed as Endangered Species. Realizing that the gray whale population has rebounded from a historic low a generation before (and knowing that the humpback population is still struggling to re-establish itself), the Makah begin a campaign to have the gray whale removed from the U.S. Endangered Species list. David Sones, of the Makah Fisheries department, leads the successful drive, which culminated in June 1994 with the "eastern North Pacific Stock" of gray whales being removed from the list. The Makah begin the next phase of their plan to resume whaling by contacting various United States government agencies.

April 1995 Mike Tillman, Deputy Commissioner of the U.S. Delegation on Whaling Issues, writes in a memo that Japan and Norway have contacted the Makah about buying their whale meat, and the tribe is considering building a processing plant.

May 8, 1995 Representatives of the Makah Tribe meet with NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) officials in Washington D.C (NOAA is a part of the Clinton Administration’s Commerce Department). A letter sent by the Makah to NOAA prior to the meeting outlines the Makah’s plans. The Makah are seeking National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) help in developing their whaling industry. They are also seeking NOAA’s assistence in petitioning the IWC for a gray whale subsistence quota. The letter also makes the Makah’s commercial intentions quite clear: "It should be emphasized, however, that we continue to strongly believe that we have the right under the Treaty of Neah Bay to harvest whales not only for ceremonial and subsistence but also for commercial purposes. ...[O]ur decision to seek IWC approval for an interim ceremonial and subsistence harvest only should not be construed in any way as a waiver or relinquishment of our treaty-secured whaling rights."

1996 The NMFS signs a pact with the Makah sanctioning the proposed hunt.

Late June 1996 A delegation of Makah and U.S. officials, including NOAA head D. James Baker, travel to Aberdeen, Scotland to the annual IWC meeting. Baker submits the Makah request for a gray whale quota to the IWC. The Makah proposal is withdrawn after two Makah elders, Alberta Thompson and Dottie Chamblin, testify against the proposed hunt, and after the powerful U.S. House Resources committee votes unanimously to condemn both the hunt and the Clinton Administration for supporting it. Over 300 environmental groups from around the world lodge protests as well.

March 1997 Japan and Norway help fund the creation of the "World Council of Whalers," an international pro-commercial whaling organization based in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. The 14 Vancouver Island tribes represented in the WCW are Nootka Indians (also known as Nuu-chah-Nulth people), the same clan family as the Makah (Makah are not part of the traditional clans that populate the rest of the Olympic Peninsula).

1997 The Clinton Administration, through the NMFS, grants the Makah $200,000, which they use to create their whaling commission, hire the public relations firm Denny Miller & Associates, and fly around the world to argue their cause. Virtually all Makah statements to the media indicating potential commercial use of Makah-captured whales cease after Denny Miller & Associates is hired.

June 1997 In Harare, Zimbabwe, Japan and Norway attempt to get the 138 country-members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to lift its ban on the international trade of whale meat. The move was unsuccessful (it received over 50% of the vote, but falls short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass).

October 1997 The Makah again petition the IWC, this time at the IWC’s annual meeting in Monaco. The Makah need to receive votes from three-quarter of the countries, but in the end the issue never comes to a vote. The U.S. delegation, fearful that the Makah will never pass IWC muster to show a subsistence need for whale meat, brokers a backroom deal with Russia. The U.S. agrees to give Russia four of the Alaskan Eskimo bowhead whale allotment per year, in exchange for four of the Russian indigenouspeople’s gray whale allotment. The Makah never actually receive an IWC quota to hunt gray whales.

March 1998 Despite repeated claims of having no interest in commercially exploiting whale meat, the Makah play host to 60 representatives of the pro-commercial whaling World Council of Whalers, who converge on the Makah Reservation to swap stories and shoot rifles with Makah.

May 21, 1998 U.S. Representative Jack Metcalf, along with several whale protection groups and tour boat operators, file suit in federal court arguing that the U.S. government failed to obtain an environmental impact statement for the hunt.

August 23, 1998 The Seattle Times publishes what they title "The Makah Manifesto," by Keith Johnson of the Makah Whaling Commission. In the manifesto, Johnson says "We have no plans to sell whale meat in the future. Though it may be difficult for some people to accept, we are acting out of purely ethical motives." This statement is in direct contradiction to previous statements made by other Makah, including Fisheries Director Dan Greene, assistant Fisheries Director David Sones, former Makah Whaling Commission Director John McCarty, and Hubert Markishtum, chairman of the Makah Tribal Council.

August 30, 1998 The Makah Tribe holds its annual Makah Days festival. Washington State Governor Gary Locke calls out the national guard for the first time since the explosion of Mount St. Helens. Locke is responding to rumors that whale activists plan to protest at the festival. Despite repeated and explicit assurances by PAWS, the Sea Shepherd Society, and others, that no protest is planned, Locke deploys 800 troops at a cost of $800,000. The Seattle Times runs a headline after the festival, "Makah festival is surprisingly quiet." Surprising, apparently, only to the media who had turned vague rumors into foregone conclusions.

September 18, 1998 The lawsuit filed by Congressman Jack Metcalf is dismissed by Federal Judge Franklin Burgess.

October 10, 1998 PAWS files suit in federal court, claiming that the Coast Guard’s 500-yard exclusion zone represents, among other things, a violation of PAWS’ First Amendment right. By setting the arbitrary distance of 500-yards, the Coast Guard guarenteed that no protestor would be able to document the hunt photographically, or by any other means. As of press time, Federal Judge Franklin Burgess has not set a hearing date to act on the lawsuit.

Back to Issue 39 Contents

Back to PAWS Magazine Issues

Sign Up for PAWS E-newsletters!

Contact Information

* denotes a required field

Which regular PAWS Newsletters would you like to receive?

Please check all that apply

E-mail this Page

E-mail this Page

Like what you see? Send a link to this page via e-mail. We respect your privacy. Neither you nor your friend will be added to PAWS’ mailing list.

Security Code

Thank you!

Your message has been sent.

Note: We will do our best to respond to your email on the next weekday. For an immediate answer, please give us a call.


I'm sorry, your message was not sent. Double-check your security code. If this error persists, please contact us at (425) 787-2500 or

Fatal Error

I'm sorry, there was a fatal error sending your message. We cannot process your request at this time. please contact our support team at (425) 787-2500 or