On 8th September, a gray whale was harpooned and then shot with a .460 caliber rifle by five members of the Makah Native American tribe of Neah Bay, Washington. According to officials of the US Coast Guard, the whale suffered for nearly twelve hours before it finally died.
The five tribal members involved were taken into custody by the Coast Guard and eventually turned over to Makah tribal police for further questioning. According to initial reports, the US federal government had not been made aware of the attempted kill until after the animal had been struck. No permit for the hunt had been issued.
The Makah last killed a gray whale in 1999, when they had received permission from the US government to hunt gray whales within a limited area under the terms of an 1855 treaty. Prior to the 1999 hunt, not a single whale had been taken by the Makah in more than seven decades. Several of those responsible for this most recent kill are believed to have also participated in the 1999 hunt.
Conservation and welfare groups questioned the US government's decision to allow the gray whale kill in 1999, arguing that the permit had been issued improperly and did not comply with the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The groups sued the government and won, forcing the US authorities to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the Makah hunt before any new permit could be issued. The EIS process has not yet been completed, and considering that significant steps must still be taken in the regulatory process before a final decision can be made, it is clear that this recent activity by the tribe will no doubt impact, and perhaps hinder, the course of these regulatory hurdles.
Courtney Vail of WDCS North America said: "Reports indicate that this was an extraordinarily cruel action, as the whale took almost 12 hours to die. Clearly, this was also an illegal hunt, as the Makah tribe has not been given permission by the federal government to kill this, or any, whale and they are actually in the middle of an extensive process of evaluating the tribes request for an exemption under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. At face value, this blatant action shows that the Makah may be unwilling to follow any regulations or bilateral agreements that pertain to subsistence whale kills.
In May, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issued a five year quota for 620 North pacific gray whales; the US government and the Makah have argued that they have a right to a share of this quota. However, many groups, including WDCS, believe that the Makah fail to fulfill IWC guidelines on subsistence whaling, as the tribe has shown neither a continuing tradition of whaling, nor a subsistence need for whale meat. Much of the meat from the one gray whale killed by the Makah in 1999 went to waste.