Makah Tribe Denounces Killing of Gray Whale

A California gray whale is caught in a net as Makah tribal members watch. They harpooned the whale, then shot it with a high-powered rifle.
A California gray whale is caught in a net as Makah tribal members watch. They harpooned the whale, then shot it with a high-powered rifle. (By Barney Burke -- Associated Press)
By Lynda V. Mapes
Seattle Times
Monday, September 10, 2007

NEAH BAY, Wash., Sept. 9 -- It was about 6:30 on a beautiful Saturday morning, with gray whales all around, when Wayne Johnson decided he had waited long enough: It was time to hunt again.

Johnson and four other Makah tribal members boarded two motorized boats in Neah Bay, on the northwest tip of Washington state, and headed out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Around 9:30, they saw a gray whale, about 40 feet long, surface and come to the two boats. "It chose us," Johnson said.

Crew members plunged at least five stainless steel whaling harpoons into the animal. Then they shot it with a .460-caliber high-powered rifle, powerful enough to fire a slug four miles. The whale was soon still. "It wasn't swimming, it was just being carried by the current," Johnson said.

Saturday's hunt shocked Johnson's own tribe and anti-whaling activists. The Makah tribe is federally permitted to hunt whales, but this hunt did not conform to the conditions of the permit.

Johnson, 54, and the others were arrested by the Coast Guard, which confiscated the gun and the boats. The whale, harpoons and all, was cut loose. By evening, it was dead, sinking out of sight.

The whalers were turned over to tribal police and spent most of Saturday night at the jail on the reservation. They were then released on bond.

Johnson said Sunday that he had no regrets, except maybe that he had waited too long to exercise his tribal treaty right to hunt. He was the captain of the whaling crew that in 1999 took the Makah tribe's first whale in 70 years, but another hunt had been held up for more than eight years by wrangling in the courts.

"I'm not ashamed. I'm feeling kind of proud. At least I attempted to do something. I have nothing to be ashamed about," he said. "There is only a few guys in Neah Bay that can get a whale and bring everyone home safely. . . . I should have done it years ago."

But Johnson's tribal leaders called the men "irresponsible" and said the Makah have been receiving death threats over the kill.

After meeting much of the day Sunday in a closed-door session, the tribal council issued a one-page statement denouncing the actions of the whalers and promising prosecution to the fullest extent of the law. The tribe said it would cooperate with federal officials in the investigation of the hunt and that the whalers will stand trial in tribal court at a future date.

Meanwhile, Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Seattle, said the office will wait until it gets investigative reports about the whale kill from the Coast Guard, the tribal police, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before it determines whether any action should be taken.

A federally approved hunt requires a permit secured from the tribe first, and with prior notification to a federal observer, who has to be in place at the time of the kill. The permit also requires the hunt to take place west of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off Washington's outer coast, to protect so-called resident whales.

In the 1999 hunt, whalers were to spear the animal with a harpoon thrown from a traditional canoe, then dispatch the whale with a .50-caliber gun.

Seattle Times correspondent Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

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