Gray Whales Still at Risk

By Berman, Mark | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Gray Whales Still at Risk


Berman, Mark, Earth Island Journal


Despite the recent victory in Baja California, threats to the gray whale continue. The government of Mexico and Japan's Mitsubishi Corporation have abandoned plans to build a massive salt plant (See story on page 32.). In northwest Washington State. far from the warmwater lagoons of Baja California, Native American hunters from the Makah tribe have again set out to kill gray whales.

For 70 years, the Makah peacefully coexisted with gray whales, which routinely pass through tribal waters on the long migration from Baja's nursery lagoons to feeding grounds in Alaska. Last year that all changed. In May 1999, Makah hunters killed a two-year-old juvenile gray whale, an event televised internationally. As the young female moved toward the Makah canoe (possibly seeking friendly human contact, as they are known to do in Baja California's lagoons), she suddenly found a harpoon in her hack. She was finished-off with a 50-caliber rifle.

The Makah tribe had sought permission from the International Whaling Commission (IWO) and the Clinton Administration to resume "traditional" aboriginal whaling. The IWC's exemption from the commercial whaling ban, however, is only for aboriginbal whaling that can demonstrate a nutritional and cultural need for eating whale meat. The Makah have not shown this need.

Nonetheless, in 1999, the US granted the Makah permission to kill five whales annually for the next five years. (Harpooned whales that manage to escape are not counted, despite the likelihood that they will later die from infection or stress.) Permitting the resumption of Makah whaling is making it more difficult to oppose large-scale whaling by Japan and Norway, which now claim that their "right" to kill whales is rooted in a "cultural need."

This contemporary version of a Makah hunt is far from traditional. A powerboat tows the ceremonial canoe to the area where the whales migrate. Small planes guide the tribesmen to the whales. Although a ceremonial harpoon is used for the first strike, the actual killing is done with a high-powered rifle capable of knocking out an artillery tank.

This spring, several Makah families attempted to kill gray whales in Neah Bay. Anti-whaling activists who tried to block the whalers were denied access to a US Coast Guard-enforced "exclusionary zone" surrounding the hunt. One of the protest boats was rammed by a Coast Guard vessel, injuring at least two activists.

On April 17, a Coast Guard ship rammed Erin Abbott, a young anti-whaling activist piloting a jet ski. Abbott suffered injuries severe enough to put her in the hospital for a week and now faces jail time and a $250,000 fine. Erin did manage to prevent the killing of a whale, however, when the noise and movement of her craft caused the whale to dive out of danger.

Gray whales face other threats, as well. Last year, DNA analysis revealed that gray whale meat was being openly sold in Japanese markets in Taiji and Nachikatsura. …

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