Earth Island Institute

ECO: The environmental voice at the IWC

ECO is published by Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project at the meeting of the International Whaling Commission on behalf of environmental and animal welfare organizations around the globe.

For further information, please contact: Mark J. Palmer, Associate Director, Earth Island Institute, International Marine Mammal Project.

Previous volumes of ECO are available here.


Volume LXIV · Panama City, Panama · No. 4 · Thursday July 5, 2012
Acrobat .pdf of issue

The Trouble with Grays

Several recent scientific revelations have occurred in the past couple of years that complicate the management and protection of the gray whale.

Scientists have determined, for example, that the resident gray whales, which spend the summer months around the coast of Washington State and British Columbia instead of venturing into the Arctic Ocean with the main population, are genetically distinct from the rest of the Eastern Pacific gray whale population. As the numbers of this distinct population are quite low, it is not enough to simply expect that as the rest of the population increases, this smaller population will also increase.

More recently, an individual of the seriously endangered Western Pacific gray whale population, with perhaps one hundred to one hundred and fifty animals left, was documented to have swum across the Pacific to mingle with the Eastern Pacific gray whale population, further complicating issues of killing whales by both the Makahs and the Chukchi people for aboriginal subsistence.

These population mixing issues have resulted in the US National Marine Fisheries Service stopping the process of analysis required under the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) for the proposed Makah aboriginal subsistence whaling, as such whaling by the Makah tribe of Northwestern Washington state could very well impact the endangered gray whale populations. NMFS says they will start the process all over with new analysis of the risk to these small genetic populations.

The Makah tribe has been prohibited from killing gray whales by several domestic court decisions, blocking approval of the NEPA procedure so far as inadequate.

In 2007, several Makah whalers illegally went out to kill a gray whale. The hapless whale was harpooned four times and shot sixteen times, but still lived for twelve hours. Eventually it sank out of sight. The four Makah tribesmen were cited and fined, with two serving time in prison for the illegal hunt.

Environmental and animal welfare groups by and large oppose the Makah hunts because the tribe quit killing gray whales back in the 1920s, there is no evidence of nutritional need, and the hunts undermine the protection of whales.

Nature has a way of complicating the best-laid plans of mice and men. (We are not sure who first said that—it was either Abraham Lincoln or Moses. We think.)