Makah group plans to mark whale hunt anniversary Saturday in Neah Bay
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Makah whalers celebrate atop a dead gray whale in Neah Bay after the successful hunt in this May 17, 1999, photo. Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

NEAH BAY –– A small flotilla of canoes is expected to set out into Neah Bay on Saturday to mark the 15th anniversary of the Makah tribe’s last legal whale hunt.

At the same time, federal officials are coming closer to finalizing an environmental review that could lead to another hunt.

Wayne Johnson, who captained the crew that on May 17, 1999, killed the Makah’s first gray whale since the 1920s, said the Makah Whaling Commission organized a paddle to mark the anniversary.

“It was just going to be a little get-together by the crew members who were on that permit,” Johnson said.

“But it’s kind of started snowballing a bit. Now it sounds like there’ll be about 150 people instead of 50 or so.”

Makah General Manager Meredith Parker said Thursday the Tribal Council was unaware of the event.

Johnson also was part of a group of five Makah who illegally shot dead a gray whale named CRC-175 east of Neah Bay on Sept. 8, 2007. The illegal hunt netted Johnson five months in prison.

Whaling is a centuries-old tradition for the Makah.

Article 4 of the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay guarantees the Makah the right to hunt whales, a tribal tradition that dates back more than 1,500 years.

The Makah is the only tribe in the lower 48 states to have that right guaranteed in its treaty with the United States.

The paddle will leave from the beach in front of the senior center, 341 Bayview Ave., at 10 a.m., the whaling commission said in a statement.

Along with the paddle, the commission has planned a feast, dancing and traditional songs to celebrate the whalers and the whale, the skeleton of which now hangs in the Makah Cultural and Research Center.

“It’s just going to be a short paddle because we’re all a little out of shape,” Johnson said.

Johnson said organizers have also pulled the Hummingbird canoe out of storage and rehabilitated it for use in Saturday’s paddle.

“We saved the Hummingbird,” he said. “The seniors didn’t want to see it destroyed, so it’s back out.”

The whale was harpooned from the Hummingbird, then finished off with bullets from an elephant gun fired from a motorized chase boat.

The 32-foot canoe was used to take the whale in 1999 and was retired in 2006 after it capsized during the InterTribal Canoe Journey, killing Joseph Andrew “Jerry” Jack, a hereditary chief of the Mowachaht/Muchalaht tribe of Vancouver Island.

Johnson said the paddle was organized to recognize the Makah Whaling Commission’s work in putting together the 1999 hunt.

“We wanted to do something to show a little appreciation, to show that we haven’t forgot about their hard work a long time ago,” Johnson said.

As global whale populations declined due to non-native commercial operations that hunted gray whales almost to extinction, the Makah abandoned whale hunting in the 1920s.

After decades of conservation measures, gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994.

The Makah applied in 1995 to again exercise its treaty right to hunt whales.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered in 2004 that the Makah could not obtain a waiver from the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act until an environmental assessment was prepared.

In 2007, the International Whaling Commission allowed the Makah to take 20 whales over five years, with no more than five in one year, if the tribe received the waiver.

A draft environmental impact statement was released in 2008 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

That document was scrapped in 2012 after new scientific information found a group of gray whales that frequents the Washington coast may be different than the 20,000 that pass through on migration routes along the West Coast.

Donna Darm, associate deputy administrator for NOAA’s west region, said Thursday a new statement incorporating that information should be ready for public review by the fall.

“There’s been a lot of new science that we received since the 2008 draft,” Darm said.

That new information, which identifies a genetically distinct group of about 200 gray whales distinguished by their dorsal hump and patchy skin, will not necessarily impact the tribe’s hunt, but it will require that tribal hunters carefully identify what group any future whales they take come from.

“Nothing we’ve learned really changes what the tribe has proposed in the first place,” Darm said. “It just changes what we see as far as impacts.”

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: May 15. 2014 6:57PM
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