US Tribe's Quest to Kill Whales Moves Closer to Reality

In March of this year, as noted on page 2, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) on the Makah Tribe’s proposed hunt of gray whales—the first step toward issuing a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to allow the hunt under US law. In its comments to NMFS, AWI asserts that the DEIS is inadequate, and that the MMPA waiver should not be granted.

While AWI recognizes the historical significance of whaling to the Makah, the tribe no longer depends on whales for sustenance—and hasn’t for a very long time. With the exception of a single gray whale killed in 1999 and another whale killed illegally in 2007, the Makah have not hunted whales for nearly 90 years. Consequently, the tribe cannot demonstrate a “continuing traditional dependence on whaling and the use of whales.” Such a need is required to obtain an Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) quota from the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

And yet, since 1997, the United States has sought and obtained an ASW quota from the IWC for the Makah—submitting its proposal jointly with Russia’s ASW proposal to avoid a separate vote on the Makah quota. Despite this dubious “clearance” granted by the IWC, the hunt is still prohibited under US law—for now. An MMPA waiver could change that.

Makah whaling could be disastrous for two of the three gray whale populations that traverse the tribe’s planned hunting grounds. One such population—resident gray whales who spend their summers off the western coasts of Canada and the United States—consists of an estimated 209 individuals. A second, critically endangered population of 140 Western North Pacific gray whales could also be harmed, as some of these animals migrate through the Makah’s proposed hunting ground.

Whales from these two populations cannot be distinguished on physical appearance alone from the larger third population of Eastern North Pacific gray whales. Even this third population of nearly 21,000 animals is subject to threats such as climate change, contaminants, ocean noise, ship strikes, and net entanglement throughout their summering, wintering, and incredibly long migratory range. Therefore, they shouldn’t be subject to a new threat posed by a hunt.

In addition to these considerations, the cold fact remains that whaling causes great suffering; trying to chase, harpoon, shoot and quickly kill an enormous, swimming mammal from a moving vessel buffeted by ocean waves and currents is virtually impossible. When five Makah whalers illegally killed a gray whale in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2007, they pierced the whale’s flesh with four harpoon strikes and 16 bullets. They did not, however, manage to reel in the whale, who suffered for at least 12 hours before dying and sinking to the ocean floor.

Instead of facilitating a resurrection of long-abandoned Makah whaling, the tribe and the US government should be working to permanently relegate the tribe’s whaling to the history books. Taking a cue from the neighboring Quileute Nation, the Makah could celebrate whales and still honor the tribe’s whaling past without killing any of these remarkable animals. If the Makah were to offer whale watching tours, for example, they could resurrect their relationship with gray whales without killing them, provide visitors with a unique opportunity to observe whales and other wildlife, raise important revenue for the tribe, and educate visitors about wildlife and ocean conservation as well as Makah culture and traditions. This would be far better for all involved, including the gray whales, than initiating an unnecessary and cruel hunt.