For the Makah, whaling is a tradition dating back centuries, but one animal protection group says that in the modern world, there is no place for such "recreation."
The Fund for Animals, the Humane Society of the United States and other groups have been waging a legal battle to keep the Makah, an American Indian tribe who live along the coasts of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, from rowing out from the shore in traditional dugout canoes and hunting whales in a manner very much the way their ancestors did.
Opponents of the hunt say the Makah should not be allowed to kill whales because, unlike some tribes in Alaska and northern Canada and the indigenous people of parts of Russia, they do not need whale meat to survive. They characterize the Makah hunt as sport or recreation, and discount the tribe's claim that whaling is culturally important to them.
"That's incredibly insulting and racist," said Janine Bowechop, the director of the Makah museum. "For them to determine what it means to us brings us back to the last century when it was thought that Indians could not speak for themselves and determine what things mean to us. I would not pretend to determine what something means to another culture."
She said that despite the 70 years when the tribe did not have a whale hunt, it is still "a regular and important part of our lives."
"There are lots of strengthening values associated with whaling," she said. "There are lots of spiritual values that feed sharing and cooperation among our community. And it connects us with the ocean in ways that Makahs have always been connected with the ocean."
Navigating Legal Waters
While commercial whaling has come a long way since the days of Moby Dick, when men took their lives in their hands trying to harpoon whales and drag them down from small boats, the Makah hunt is in many ways unchanged.
The biggest difference, the Makah say, is that now they use high-powered rifles instead of harpoons to kill the whale — a change they made to limit the suffering of the whales they catch.
If, that is, they catch one.
In the five years since the Makah have been allowed to resume their hunt, they have caught one whale, and have spent more time navigating turbulent legal waters in the courts than fighting ocean waves in their dugout canoes.
The Makah may be nearing the end of their legal fight, though.
On May 17, a federal judge in Tacoma, Wash., refused to issue a restraining order to stop the Makah from whaling until a decision is reached in the animal rights groups' lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Commerce Department — agencies that cleared the way for the tribe to resume the hunt.
In the suit, the groups claim that the agencies did not do a thorough job of assessing the potential impact of Makah whaling — both on the whale population and on public safety, because of the risk of stray bullets as the whalers try to shoot their prey.
Judge Franklin Burgess said in his ruling that the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed, since there is no evidence that the Makah hunt will have any impact, other than the "aesthetic, emotional" effect on the animal rights groups.
Five days after the judge's ruling, the animal rights groups said they would appeal.
Makah Win, Other Indigenous People Lose
Another potential obstacle to the Makah resuming their hunt was removed Friday when the International Whaling Commission, meeting in Shimonoseki, Japan, approved a U.S. request to allow the tribe to kill four gray whales a year — in a re-vote after the proposal was voted down on Thursday.
The commission turned down another request by the United States to allow Eskimos to take 55 bowhead whales over five years, and one from Russia to allow the Chukotka to hunt 120 whales per year. The Eskimo tribes and the Chukotka both depend on whale as a major food source.
According to some observers, the vote to deny the requests was orchestrated by Japan in retaliation for international efforts to maintain the commercial whaling moratorium imposed on Japanese coastal communities.
"Japan essentially took the interests of arctic communities who aren't really part of this political process and held them hostage to try and get a relaxation of the commercial moratorium on whaling," World Wildlife Fund vice president Richard Mott said.
As much as the animal rights groups are concerned about the situation around the Washington coast, they are equally concerned that if the Makah are allowed to hunt whales, it will set a precedent for other tribes without a subsistence need to resume whale hunts of their own and for the resumption of large-scale commercial whaling by countries like Japan and Norway.
"Japan and Norway are salivating to re-open the commercial whaling trade," Fund for Animals executive director Michael Markarian said. "They see it [the Makah hunt] as the first step in that direction."
Whales Threatened by More Than Hunt
What allowed the Makah to even test the waters after some 70 years of not hunting whales, was the decision in 1994 to remove the gray whale, which migrates along the West Coast of the United States, from the endangered species list. Their right to hunt whales was recognized by the U.S. government in an 1855 treaty, under which the tribe ceded a portion of its lands to the government.
There are believed to be some 26,000 gray whales in the world now, but according to Markarian, that population is not so strong that hunting by the Makah — even if they are not able to take their full annual quota of five whales — would not endanger it.
He said the population is already declining because of the effects of global warming and declining food sources.
"Our group has petitioned to re-list the gray whale," he said. "Even a small amount of hunting could add to the impact of those other factors."
The group is even more concerned about the effect of hunting on a small, non-migrating group of gray whales that make their home around the mouth of the Puget Sound. The 30-40 whales who stay year-round in the waters around Washington State are "behaviorly distinct, maybe genetically distinct, from migrating gray whales," he said.
"The whales taken could come from this very small population," he said. "That could do irreparable harm to this small number of resident whales."
The Makah say that the question of whether the hunt will have a negative effect on the overall whale population has already been answered.
"This hunt presents fewer concerns than most, if not any other hunt, because of the limited nature of the hunt, the limited number of shots that are going to be fired, the training requirements, the presence of a safety officer," Makah attorney Mark Slonim said.
Killing Whales to Keep Culture Alive
According to a statement from the tribe, as little as one whale a year could satisfy the "traditional subsistence or cultural need for whale in the community," which is a requirement for a hunt to take place.
The hunts are to be carried out in a manner "as consistent as possible with our traditional manner of whale hunting" while also making sure that "the killing of the whale is done in a manner that is as humane as possible," the statement says.
Among the crew of eight to nine whalers in each of the seagoing canoes to be used in the hunt will be a harpooner and a rifleman, who will use a specially designed .50-caliber rifle to kill the whale as the harpoon is thrown or immediately after.
"It is expected that the rifle will achieve immediate unconsciousness and death of the whale when fired at a target area near the base of the skull," the statement says. "It is the most humane method that can be employed."
The rifle, which has been tested by a veterinarian from the University of Maryland and representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, replaces the traditional method of plunging spears into the whale until it dies, according to the tribe's statement.
"The anti-whaling community is very well organized and very well financed and puts out a steady stream of propaganda designed to denigrate our culture and play on human sympathy for all animals," the statement says. "Perhaps what is lost in all of their rhetoric is an appreciation of the value of preserving the culture of an American Indian Tribe — a culture which has always had to struggle against the assumption by some non-Indians that their values are superior to ours. …
"But our opponents would have us abandon this part of our culture and restrict it to a museum. To us this means a dead culture. We are trying to maintain a living culture. We can only hope that those whose opposition is most vicious will be able to recognize their ethnocentrism — subordinating our culture to theirs."
The groups opposed to the hunt say the issue goes beyond cultural concerns, though.
"It's our position that killing whales for sport, for recreation, for food, for commercial or for ceremonial purposes is unnecessary," Markarian said.
And they will continue to fight to have it stopped.