Illegal Killing of Gray Whale Must be Punished

Jeff Pantukoff/Whaleman Foundation

Illegal Killing of Gray Whale Must be PunishedThree of the five members of the Washington State Makah Tribe who killed a gray whale in September 2007 have accepted a deal offered by the federal government to plead guilty to violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in exchange for a recommended sentence of probation and community service. Considering that they each faced up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine if convicted of violating the MMPA, in addition to penalties if found guilty in tribal court, the leniency offered by the government is disturbing.

Ringleader Wayne Johnson and another whaler initially refused the deal, but later agreed to the plea in US District Court. Sentencing of all five in federal court will take place in June. They will also stand trial in tribal court for charges of jeopardizing public safety for discharging a firearm too close to a town and hunting in a marine sanctuary. The tribal charge with the stiffest penalty—violating the tribe's whaling-management plan—was dropped.

This purposeful, cruel and deadly assault on a protected marine mammal merits jail time to provide a deterrent for others who may contemplate engaging in an illegal whale hunt. In light of the brutality of the crime—in which significant suffering was experienced by the stricken whale, who took over 10 hours to die after being struck with four harpoons and shot with 16 bullets—probation and community service are not appropriate penalties.

The Makah tribe is currently prohibited from whaling due to a 2002 lawsuit filed by animal protection organizations that required the government to comprehensively evaluate the environmental impacts of Makah whaling and consider issuing an MMPA waiver to allow tribe members to whale. Nearly 80 years have passed since the Makah have engaged in whaling, with the exception of a single whale killed in a controversial hunt conducted in 1999, before the court terminated the activity.

The five Makah tribe members decided to kill a whale because they were no longer willing to wait for the courts or the federal government to decide whether their tribe is allowed to whale. Many Makah tribe members believe their right to whale is guaranteed in a treaty between the tribe and the US government, though a large number of members oppose efforts to resume whaling. The Makah cannot satisfy the legal criteria to initiate a whaling program. Therefore, the government's efforts to facilitate the tribe's resumption of whaling must be opposed.