Makah leaders promise to punish whale hunters
Makah Tribal Council vice chairman Debbie Wachendorf, left, reads a statement on the tribe’s official position condemning the killing of a whale as council member Micah McCarty, center, and Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson Jr. listen outside the tribal center in Neah Bay on Sunday. -- Photo by Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News
By Jim Casey, Peninsula Daily News
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The 30-foot gray whale was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, about 10 hours after it had been harpooned and shot with a high-powered rifle.
It sank in 500-foot-deep water in the Strait of Juan de Fuca about a mile east of Cape Flattery and two miles south of the Canadian border.
The five - Theron Parker, Andy Noel, Billy Secor, Frank Gonzales Jr. and Wayne Johnson - had talked days earlier about killing a whale, Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson Jr. said on Sunday.
"They talked about it," Ben Johnson said.
"I don't know if there was any plan or not. It was days before."
Parker, Johnson and Noel were participants in the Makah's successful and federally sanctioned whale hunt on May 17, 1999, during which a whale was harpooned and then quickly killed with a large-caliber rifle. That was the tribe's first whale hunt in 70 years.
So far the five men - who were arrested by the U.S. Coast Guard but turned over to tribal police - face only tribal charges.
The men could face civil penalties of up to $20,000 each under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Marine Fisheries Service spokesman Brian Gorman said.
Criminal prosecution under the act is almost unheard-of, but some environmentalists said the federal government should get tough on the whalers.
The tribal chairman said the hunters were exercising what the Makah regard as a right granted by an 1855 treaty with the United States.
No permission to hunt
Nevertheless, they did so without permission of the Makah tribal council and the tribe's whaling commission.
"They did go against all the rules that were set down by the [Makah] whaling commission," Ben Johnson said, including the tribe's promise not to hunt in the Strait but only in the Pacific Ocean.
Debbie Wachendorf, council vice chairwoman, said:
"Their action was a blatant violation of our law, and they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
Reading from a prepared statement, she said:
"We are a law-abiding people and we will not tolerate lawless conduct by any of our members.
"We hope the public does not permit the actions of five irresponsible persons to be used to harm the image of the entire Makah tribe."
The tribe is awaiting the results of an environmental-impact study of its request to resume whaling legally under a provision of the 152-year-old Treaty of Neah Bay.
That pact made the Makah unique in the Lower 48 states for its permission to hunt whales - a right that has been curtailed by federal courts and made subject to provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"This is a crime. It's illegal and should be prosecuted," said Will Anderson, of Seattle, who has fought against Makah whaling on behalf of Friends of the Gray Whale and other organizations.
"I don't think they should hide behind any treaty rights if the information we have currently is correct."
Anti-whaling activist Chuck Owens of Joyce called for a multi-government probe of the killing.
"This apparent criminal conspiracy occurred off the reservation and needs to be fully investigated and prosecuted by state and federal agencies, not by the Makah tribe," said Owens, who heads Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales.
Speaking for the group, Owens said: "We are absolutely appalled that one of our resident whales was subjected to 10 hours of terror and brutality before its death.
"Saturday's reckless and irrational 'whale hunt' also put many humans in mortal danger."
Details of the hunt remained murky throughout the weekend, with conflicting reports emerging about the .460-caliber rifle that was used to shoot the whale, the number of harpoons thrown at it, and whether the whale had been enmeshed in a fishing net before it was attacked.
Some tribal members said the whale was a "resident whale," one of a group that spends all year in North Olympic Peninsula waters, and a denizen of the area around Tatoosh Island.
Carcass could resurface
Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said the Coast Guard - which established a security perimeter around the wounded whale as it was towed by the hunters toward Neah Bay - would re-establish the zone if the whale's body resurfaces.
"I was quite relieved when the whale sank," said Anderson.
"It ended our worries that the Makah might try to get the whale back."
After the tribe previously and legally killed a whale in 1999, parts of it were distributed to tribal members at a potlatch celebrating the return to a whaling tradition thousands of years old.
During 2005 public scoping meetings on the tribe's request to resume whaling, whaling advocates praised the benefits of the Makah's traditional diet of whale and other seafood.
According to Makah legend - memorialized in the tribe's emblem - thunderbird delivered a whale to a starving people.
Whaling families also topped the Makah social hierarchy before tribes were forced to adopt democratic self-governments.
Anti-whalers look to courts
Nonetheless, a federal appeals court in 2004 directed the Makah, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct an environmental-impact statement under the marine mammal act.
"On Monday, there are a lot of organizations going to look to the courts," said Anderson of Friends of the Gray Whale.
"Most of it will be challenges and demands for justice for this whale."
Reporter Jim Casey can be reached at 360-417-3538 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last modified: September 09. 2007 9:00PM