Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XIV No. 2 - April 2005


Makah Whaling

By William Rossiter


The Makah Tribe of Neah Bay, Washington is attempting to get a waiver to the MMPA to allow them to kill gray whales. The Tribe is using two strategies, and being helped quietly by officials, in a move that will have widespread and disastrous results. First, NMFS received the Makah's request for a waiver in mid-February, to "allow Tribal members to take limited number of Eastern North Pacific gray whales under an aboriginal subsistence quota issued by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The Makah request to harvest up to 20 whales in a 5-year period; however, in a single year, no more than seven whales could be struck, and no more than five whales could be landed."

The Makah Tribe's 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay specified their right to whale, but as US citizens they must abide by the MMPA and use a quota approved by the IWC. No MMPA waiver has ever been given, because the implications are disastrous. NMFS should be extremely reluctant to comply, because such a waiver is sure to spawn others, and what remains of the MMPA will be weakened further.

CSI was a plaintiff in the 2001 suit before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found against NMFS, putting a hold on the Makah whaling until Court requirements were met, including an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) under NEPA, and a waiver to the MMPA. No EIS is in sight but the Makah may believe that a waiver will jump start the EIS process, which should take years.

What about the IWC quota? The IWC has only granted a quota for North Pacific gray whales for aboriginal groups whose "subsistence needs have been recognized." The IWC quota was not intended by the IWC for the "ceremonial" needs of the Makah Tribe, and the Tribe's "subsistence needs" have not been demonstrated. In fact, the two-year-old whale the Makah killed in 1999 demonstrated that the Tribe's members didn't care for the taste; most of it rotted on the beach, and some meat was distributed illegally, even across the Canadian border. But the US was desperate enough a few years ago to simply assert that the IWC's aboriginal subsistence quota applied to the Makah. This was challenged by several IWC members, such as Australia, and remains an embarrassment to the US, but it is policy.

CSI is concerned that the US will make concessions to keep the IWC from questioning the "subsistence needs" of the Makah, and appease the voting bloc of whaling nations that are likely to threaten a new quota for gray whales after the current quota expires in 2007.

As a back up to the direct waiver request to NMFS, Makah representatives used a Washington, D.C. meeting of the National Congress of American Indians in late February to ask Washington's Senator Maria Cantwell, Representative Norm Dicks and other congressional representatives for legislation to let the Makah tribe waive the Marine Mammal Protection Act considerations for whaling. Denials followed rumors like hot coals passed by hand, and the source and wording of the legislation remains unclear as this newsletter closes, and it is hard to believe that the Congress would vote openly to allow whaling. But the time-honored solution to "certain death" legislation is to insert a few lines into the massive and unreadable federal budget bill, just before a final vote, giving the Makah the right to kill whales.

The Makah Tribe has suffered throughout this process, not because they cannot kill whales, but because the Tribe has had little progress on its many social problems as resources have been diverted to this one issue, new factions have emerged to challenge tribal authority, and they appear to be manipulated by many outsiders, including other tribes.

The history of this one issue reads like something from a decaying Iron Curtain country where conjured words support some political travesty. As recent history has proven, huge demonstrations by voters may be needed to save the gray whales. The Makah's supporters may not care what consequences a whale-killing MMPA waiver would have, but CSI believes the American public will care very much.


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