Makah Get More Whaling Rights in 2nd Environmental Assessment

By Drew Snider

WASHINGTON, DC, July 13, 2001 (ENS) - The Makah Indian Tribe of Washington State will get broader scope for their controversial whale hunt under a new Environmental Assessment released today by the National Marine Fisheries Service, an agency of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The Makah, who are based at Neah Bay, Washington some 30 miles west of Port Angeles, resumed their hunt in 1999 after an hiatus of almost three-quarters of a century. They claimed it was a part of their tradition and culture, and in fact, whaling is written into the Makah's 1885 Treaty.

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Makah Indians whaling at entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait (Drawing by H.W. Elliott, 1883 courtesy NOAA)
As a result, the Clinton administration allowed the hunt, while reaffirming U.S. support for the worldwide ban on whaling and imposing restrictions on the Makah operation.

Under a quota approved by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the Makah could only kill five whales a year. Further, the tribe could only hunt members of the "migratory" population, which visit Pacific Ocean waters off the mouth of Juan de Fuca Strait twice a year. Whales living year-round in Juan de Fuca Strait were to be left alone.

An environmental assessment done prior to the hunt determined it would have "no significant impact," but the assessment was done after approval had been given, and opponents of the hunt claimed the result had been pre-determined.

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Last April, Makah whaling captain Wayne Johnson watches the distribution of the only whale killed since the Makah received their quota in 1999. (Photos courtesy Sea Shepherd Conservation Society)
In 2000, a federal judge agreed, and ordered a new study. The hunt, which in two seasons had yielded one dead whale and several jailed protesters - one of whom was injured in a collision between her Zodiac inflatable boat and the whaling vessel - was put on hold until the second assessment could be done.

The second study issued today also finds "no significant impact," saying it would not affect the overall gray whale population or damage habitat or other species, and there was nothing in the meat which would harm humans who eat it.

The study finds no difference between the whales which live in Juan de Fuca Strait and those which migrate. Brian Gorman at NOAA in Seattle says the whales associate with one another and inter-breed, rendering any distinction meaningless.

Gorman says the new finding means the Makah do not have to go to open ocean to hunt whales, and may hunt those in Juan de Fuca Strait, the body of water that separates Canada and the United States. Further, they are no longer restricted to hunting at certain times of year.

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Makah whale hunt supporter
The new assessment mandates that whaling will be cut off in the strait once five whales are "struck," that is, hit by a hunter's harpoon, even if the whales are not killed. The tribe is still limited to the original quota set by the whaling commission. No more than five whales may be taken yearly until 2002, when the quota period expires.

Biologists estimate the overall population to be about 26,000 animals, probably the largest it has been since commercial whaling began in the mid-19th century.

The environmental assessment takes pains to note that the United States still abides by its commitment to the IWC and the worldwide whaling ban, and still opposes any form of commercial whaling.

It also notes that at least one Canadian Indian tribe, the Nuu-Chah-Nulth of Central and Western Vancouver Island, has expressed an interest in whaling, saying it is part of Nuu-Chah-Nulth tradition and culture. The NOAA report says the United States would oppose any native whaling not sanctioned by the IWC. Canada is not a member of the IWC.

Andrew Christie, spokesman for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society which objects to Makah whaling, says the organization is reviewing its legal options, and might file a lawsuit in federal court in Washington state to get the newly affirmed Makah whaling rights removed.

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Aerial view of a gray whale, the species sought by the Makah (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"There are ample grounds for a finding of obvious bias in favor of a whaling quota," Christie said. "We believe this assessment was produced by the same tainted process that the court found in the first environmental assessment."

The taint originated in the rewrite of federal regulations to redefine subsistance whaling so the Makah could squeak in regardless of having no subsistance need for whale meat and not having whaled for 75 years, Christie said.

In its renewed authorization of Makah whaling, NOAA is violating international law in the form of the IWC Convention said Christie. "In the IWC, the only exemption to the ban on commercial whaling is aboriginal subsistance whaling that shows an ongoing continuous need for whaling and whaling products. NOAA is trying to show the Makah need of whaling, which is stretching it, in our view."

"Our obligation is to accommodate the federal government's trust responsibilities and treaty whaling rights while making sure that tribal whaling won't threaten the eastern North Pacific gray whale population," said William Hogarth, acting director of NOAA fisheries. "This assessment does exactly that."