Commercial Whaling Under Guise of Subsistence Hunt

by Toni Frohoff, Ph.D.

By the time you read this story, Makah tribal whalers in Neah Bay, Washington, may have already killed the first of up to four gray whales which the US government claims they can kill each year of the next five years. The Makah can also "strike" up to 33 whales during this time but not land all of them on shore, potentially leaving wounded or dead whales at sea. The Makah treaty with the US states that the Makah have the right to hunt whales "in common with all citizens of the United States". However, Makah whaling will not be conducted "in common" with the people of US as other US citizens no longer have the right to whale. Furthermore, a notable number of other countries claim that international law will be broken by this hunt because the US government erroneously interpreted that Makah have a right to whale under the International Whaling Commission (IWC) decision despite the fact that the IWC has never recognized the Makah as subsistence whalers.

This issue is not one of a conflict between animals rights versus native rights. Most environmental Non-Governmental Organizations do not oppose true subsistence whaling conducted by other indigenous people with authentic nutritional and cultural subsistence needs. Opposition to the Makah hunt is based on several reasons, principal among which is that the hunt is not necessary for the survival of the Makah people, and therefore would not be a true subsistence hunt under international law. Specifically, the Makah cannot satisfy the most important criteria for aboriginal subsistence whaling as required by the IWC and as demonstrated by other subsistence whalers.

The exploitive nature of the hunt was made clear in a recent memo obtained from the US National Marine Fisheries Service which stated, "The Makah intend to harvest gray whales (starting in 1995), harbor seals (5 already taken), California sea lions, minke whales, small cetaceans such as harbor porpoise and Dall's porpoise, and, potentially, in the future, sea otters. The Makah are planning to operate a processing plant so as to sell to markets outside the U.S. The Makah have started discussions with Japan and Norway about selling their whale products to both countries" [1 - footnote].

The Makah themselves are clearly not united in the desire to resume whaling. On the contrary, a notable number of Makah people, including over half a dozen elders (some from traditional whaling families), have actively and publicly opposed the hunt. Unfortunately, many of these people have since been silenced through intimidation, harassment, and threats to personal safety, family, and property by pro-whaling Makah people, some in powerful government positions. One elder was recently fired from her job at the Tribal Senior Center because of her involvement with anti-whalers.

The whales the Makah hunt today will not be the same whales which the Makah's ancestors hunted a century ago. Today's gray whales are accustomed to boats, even allowing some whale watchers to "pet" them. These whales will be "sitting ducks" for whalers, who unlike their ancestors, will be killing in the absence of a nutritional need for whale meat.

EII and other organizations have been working with the Makah to promote educational whale watching trips to provide income to the tride and to showcase the spectacular sea and landscapes of Neah Bay at the tip of the Olympic Peninsula.

What you can do: Write to President Clinton, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20500. For updates, go to


International Marine Mammal Project
300 Broadway, suite 28    San Francisco, CA  94133
or fax 415/788-7324