After comeback, gray whale to be focus of hunt again Native American tribe wins OK to kill sea beasts

August 28, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEATTLE -- Safe from the whalers who hunted it nearly to extinction, the gray whale has staged a remarkable comeback, with a herd of 21,000 now plying the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and Canada as it migrates along the West Coast twice each year.

With that in mind, a small Native American tribe in northwest Washington has won permission to launch the first whaling expedition in the lower 48 states in 70 years. In October, members of the Makah tribe, historic whalers of the Pacific Northwest, will launch a stream of canoes out of Neah Bay, prepared to hunt and kill the first of up to five gray whales a year.

But anti-whaling groups around the world have pledged to block the hunt, which they say could lead to a major increase in global whaling and threaten humankind's harmonious relationship with the mammoth sea beasts that traverse one of the world's most populated shorelines.

And the Makah whale hunt, authorized under a compromise agreement with the panel that administers the 11-year-old international ban on commercial whaling, looms as one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the next decade.

This weekend, up to 20,000 people are expected to descend on the tiny community of Neah Bay for the Makah's annual cultural celebration, some of them protesters aiming to discourage the hunt.

The Sea Shepherd Society, one of the groups planning to demonstrate against the hunt, is amassing a flotilla of boats, a helicopter and a submarine, preparing to deploy them between the whales and the tribe's canoes and to videotape the hunt as it progresses. And the organization plans to paint its submarine to resemble a killer whale and broadcast into the water the sounds of killer whales attacking gray whales -- hoping that will scare off the herd before it ever reaches the waters near Neah Bay.

The Makah sought to conduct the hunt purely by traditional means, with harpoons. But for humanitarian reasons, the whaling commission insisted that the whale, once harpooned, must be finished off quickly with an automatic rifle.

The Coast Guard has imposed a 500-foot restriction zone around the Makah canoes, apparently fearful that the 50-caliber machine guns the tribesmen will use could endanger nearby protesters. But conservation groups say the limit will prevent them from filming the death of the whale.

Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson said the group is concerned not only about the five whales a year to be taken by the Makah, but also by the fact that the hunt has been authorized as a means of reviving the tribe's cultural heritage.

Previous exemptions for aboriginal whaling were granted solely for purposes of subsistence, he said.

"That will mean that Japan and Norway, Iceland and Russia will then go to the [commission] and claim cultural necessity," Watson said. "I'm not sending two ships and a submarine here to stop five whales from an aboriginal hunt. My opposition is Oslo, Tokyo and Reykjavik."

Keith Johnson, president of the Makah Whaling Commission, said he expects that once people understand the purpose and manner of the hunt, controversy will disappear.

"We want people to know we're not this horrible, barbaric people," he said. "The first whale will be the toughest."

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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