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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Makah Whaling: Rights and Fights

Air Date: Week of

The native Makah tribe of Washington state has won the right to resume its traditional hunt of the gray whale. Living on Earth's northwest bureau reporter Terry FitzPatrick tells Steve Curwood that controversy continues to surround the tribe, and some activists say they will try to disrupt their efforts in order to discourage a new trend toward renewed whale slaughter in the name of cultural identity.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Water splashes and men chant. A foghorn in the distance.)

CURWOOD: In the Pacific Northwest a crew of Makah Indians has been preparing for something that hasn't been tried in generations: hunting a 40- ton whale from a canoe.

(Men continue to chant)

CURWOOD: The tribe plans to resume whaling this fall, and that has sparked a bitter dispute that pits Native American rights against animal rights. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick joins us now from our Northwest Bureau to explain.


CURWOOD: Hey, Terry, it's been 70 years since the Makah took their last whale. So why do they want to start again now?

FITZ PATRICK: Well, mostly because they can. The whaling culture of the Makah tribe dates back more than 15 centuries, and they stopped in the 1920s only because commercial fleets nearly wiped out the gray whales along the west coast of North America. The whales, now, because of international protection, have recovered. There's a robust population. And so, Makah elders have decided it's time to resume their tradition.

CURWOOD: Is this a matter of subsistence? Did they need the meat?

FITZ PATRICK: That's part of it. Their reservation is in a very remote location out at the very northwest tip of the continental United States. And it's an isolated location where people have a tough time earning a living. Half the tribe is unemployed. A third lives below the poverty line. And so, the meat from a whale will certainly be welcome there. Really, though, the Makah say that this is more a matter of reclaiming their identity. Now, here's how a member of the tribe's Whaling Commission, Denise Dailey, described it during a recent festival.

DAILEY: Do we just want it to be stuck in the museum in pictures and just be known as, you know, 200 years ago we used to do that? And we really felt that it is our culture. We're known as whale hunters, and we didn't ever want it to die. To me, that was what this is all about. We're going to be just like our ancestors.

FITZ PATRICK: Now, like their ancestors, the hunters this fall will use a dugout canoe and a harpoon thrown by hand. Although they have made 2 concessions to modern times. One is that they will finish off the wounded whale quickly with a high-powered rifle, actually an anti-tank gun. And they've agreed to follow rules that are set up by the US Government and the International Whaling Commission. And in fact they got permission from both those entities before going ahead with the hunt.

CURWOOD: So what's the controversy about? Is it animal rights groups who are opposed to this?

FITZ PATRICK: Yes, primarily. The IWC, the International Whaling Commission, has allowed aboriginal peoples to hunt whales for a number of years for food. In Siberia, in Alaska, in Greenland, and a couple other places. They've allowed this even though there is a worldwide moratorium in place on commercial whaling. This, though, is the first time since the ban was enacted that someone is reviving a hunt primarily for cultural reasons. Now, animal rights activists are worried that nations who are defying the whaling moratorium will use this cultural rationale to justify their commercial whaling operations. The person who's complaining the most bitterly about this is a guy named Paul Watson, who runs a militant anti-whaling group called the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. And this is what he has to say about what's at stake with the Makah hunt.

WATSON: That will be a disaster for whales worldwide, because Russia, Japan, Iceland, and any other whaling nation will go to the IWC and say, "We kill whales for cultural necessity also." The Icelanders and the Norwegians both claim that they have a longer tradition of killing whales than the Makah do. So, this isn't just a question of 5 gray whales to be taken by the Makah. This is something that can affect thousands of whales that will be taken internationally as a result.

FITZPATRICK: Now, many people think Mr. Watson is wrong on this. The floodgates won't be opened, and some of the most vocal anti-whaling groups, like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, even, the original Save the Whales group, they do not oppose the Makah hunt.

CURWOOD: But the Sea Shepherd group isn't giving up, I gather. They're preparing for some kind of a showdown at sea?

FITZ PATRICK: Yeah, that's right. A blockade, possibly. They have an armada of protest ships anchored near the reservation. And the activists plan to either block the Makah canoe from reaching a whale, or somehow to scare the gray whales away from the region altogether. Now, to do that, Paul Watson has a mini-submarine that's painted like a predatory killer whale. When I was out on his boat, we climbed inside the sub and he explained how he'll use it to blast orca sounds into the water.

(Orca sounds with splashing water)

WATSON: What we're hoping to do is that it'll be able to operate in the guise of an orca. It'll approach migratory gray whales. And when they see this thing that looks like an orca, sounds like an orca, then it's our hope that they'll turn and run for the open sea.

FITZ PATRICK: Ironically, it's illegal to harass whales like this, even if you're trying to save them from being killed. The Coast Guard has ordered protesters to stay away from the Makah boat, Steve, but it's unclear if they'll obey that order.

CURWOOD: It sounds dangerous, Terry, and this showdown could happen any day now?

FITZ PATRICK: Yes. And it is hard to predict what'll happen out there in the ocean. To paraphrase a local marshall out here, you've got big guns, big ships, big whales, and big emotions all coming together. And that could be a recipe for a disaster.

CURWOOD: Well, thanks for filling us in.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick is at our Northwest Bureau in Seattle.



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