A gray whale living peacefully in the Strait of Juan de Fuca had been nicknamed "Kelpie" for his habit of feeding in the kelp beds and becoming draped with kelp. However, in early September, he was illegally hunted down by five men in power boats. Hit with 21 bullets from a high powered firearm and at least five harpoons, it took the gentle giant 10 agonizing hours to die.
This flagrant violation of federal law was committed by men who felt they had the right to kill the animal because their ancestors killed whales. The Makah tribe of Washington State relied on whaling for food until about 80 years ago, at which time it changed its practices, in part due to the precarious state of the gray whale population. Since then, the tribe has lost its dependence on whale meat and no longer has a subsistence need—the critical legal criteria necessary to obtain a whaling quota under both US and international law. Some Makah want to whale again, claiming a cultural need. There is no legal basis for this, and it has frightening implications internationally.
The mere mention of "native peoples" evokes sympathy for the plight that befell too many US tribes. Sadly, some are taking advantage of such sympathy to further their own vested interests. The Government of Japan, not satisfied with killing whales under a so-called "scientific" exemption, is attempting to create a bigger loophole by establishing a new whaling category of "cultural whaling." It has sought, albeit unsuccessfully, international approval for a whaling quota for its coastal communities. Inevitably, Japan will demand equal treatment for its coastal people if the United States allows the Makah to whale solely to meet its alleged cultural needs.
Whales may be the cornerstone of the Makah's culture, but their value is best preserved if they are alive. The tribe should explore non-lethal options such as whale watching with as much vigor as was previously expended on attempts to recommence whaling. The Animal Welfare Institute offers its assistance to the Makah tribe so it may develop ways to maintain its culture without harming the whales.