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The Makah Whale Hunt

by Murray Lundberg

Original Dateline: October 1, 1998

      As of this morning (Thursday, October 1, 1998), the Makah people of Washington State have the right to kill 5 gray whales. The Makah Whaling Commission is determined to start the hunt as soon as their crews are ready, despite some pressure from within their own community, and enormous pressure from groups and individuals around the world to leave the whales alone. The success or failure of this hunt, from a political perspective, may well have a huge impact on Northern peoples who are already conducting legal hunts for whales.

Exclusive Right

The Makah are the only Native Americans who have a treaty that specifically allows whale hunting - it was signed in 1855.

      There is no dispute about the fact that whale populations in the North Pacific (and most other parts of the world) were decimated during the "Golden Age" of whaling in the late 19th Century. The controversy that reached the powder-keg stage today results from widely varying beliefs as to what is morally correct, particularly when mammals are concerned. Any time a life-form that is currently considered to have what we define as 'dignity' is threatened (whether it's a whale, a grizzly or a California redwood), controversy erupts. In the case of the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus), this is compounded by differing interpretations as to the health of the population, generally estimated as about 23,000. The gray whale was given international protection in 1947 when the worldwide population dropped to several hundred - their recovery is one of the most impressive of any species in the world, but does that justify a resumption of limited hunting?

      The likelihood of a violent confrontation between the Makah whalers and environmentalists is high - in an effort to stop such a confrontation, the U.S. Coast Guard has instituted a 500-meter zone around the whaling canoe, in which anyone entering without permission is subject to arrest. While opposition to the hunt has been mounting for years, most of the support for it has been in the quiet halls of various legislative agencies. Only very recently has public support become apparent, and this support has largely been engendered by the completely legal procedures followed by the Makah Whaling Commission during their multi-year effort to get a permit from the International Whaling Commission (IWC). A significant feature of the final permit is that it is a joint permit with Russia's Chukotka people.


The Makah voluntarily discontinued whale hunting in the 1920s, more than 20 years before gray whales were protected.

      Why do the Makah people want to return to hunting whales? The Makah Tribal Council replies that:

Whaling has been a tradition of the Makah for more than 2000 years. We had to stop in the 1920s due to the scarcity of gray whales. Their all-time abundance now makes it possible to resume the hunt. There has been an intensification of interest in our own history and culture since the archeological dig at our village of Ozette in 1970, which uncovered thousands of artifacts bearing witness to our whaling tradition. Many Makahs feel that our health problems result, in some degree, to the loss of our traditional diet of seafood and sea mammal meat. We would like to restore the meat of the whale to our diet. Many of us also believe that problems besetting our young people stem from lack of discipline and pride. We believe that the restoration of whaling will help to restore that discipline and pride.

Too Many Grays???

There have been huge changes in the ecosystem of the Bering Sea in the past few years, and the large number of gray whales dying and washing up on the beaches of Mexico and California may be an indication that there are too many whales for the available food.

      There are reports that few of the spiritual ceremonies that traditionally preceded a whale hunt, meant to honour the whales who were about to sacrifice their lives for the health of the Makah, have been conducted. Every aspect of a hunt, historically speaking, was bestowed with spiritual power, from the canoe to the storage boxes for knives and harpoon heads. But should the definition of a "traditional hunt" ensure that it conforms as closely as possible to pre-contact conditions, or should there be an interpretation that accepts some degree of cultural evolution? In practical terms, can a .50-calibre rifle replace a harpoon? And is this complicated even further in the Makah case by the hunters' stated wish to prevent undue suffering to the whale?

We plan to use both a harpooner and a rifleman who will be stationed in the canoe. The harpooner will use a stainless steel harpoon mounted on a wooden shaft approximately 7 feet long, connected by ropes to buoys and to the canoe. The rifleman will fire a specially designed .50 caliber rifle simultaneously or immediately after the harpoon is thrown.

      The possible impact of the Makah hunt on the North is immense. Of the circumpolar nations, whaling, to varying degrees, is currently allowed in Russia, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Canada (the Northwest Territories) and the United States (Alaska). The IWC has made specific allowances for aboriginal hunts in several areas:

  • Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas bowhead whales - Alaskan Eskimos and native peoples of Chukotka are allowed to land a total of 280 whales from 1998 through 2002, with no more than 67 whales taken in any one year (up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year).
  • Eastern North Pacific gray whales - those peoples whose "traditional, aboriginal and subsistence needs have been recognised" are allowed a total of 620 whales from 1998 through 2002, with a maximum of 140 in any one year.
  • West Greenland fin whales - Greenlanders are allowed an annual catch of 19 whales from 1998 through 2002.
  • West Greenland minke whales - Greenlanders are allowed an annual catch of 175 whales from 1998 through 2002, (up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year).
  • East Greenland minke whales - Greenlanders are allowed an annual catch of 12 whales from 1998 through 2002 (up to 3 unused strikes may be carried over each year).

      The Inuit of the Canadian North engage in hunting beluga, narwhal and bowhead whales - in 1982, Canada withdrew from the IWC, and started allowing traditional whale hunts by the Inuit in 1991. The 1996 killing of a bowhead in the eastern Arctic brought condemnation from the IWC and economic sanctions from the United States, in the form of a ban on the importation of sealskin products (which largely originate in Inuit communities).

      What the impact of the Makah hunt will be is anyone's guess at this point. The Makah see that as the IWC's responsibility, not theirs - Canada's withdrawal from the IWC, however, proves the inability of that organization to effectively protect the world's whales except when agreement among nations is unanimous. Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, foresees extreme consequences:

...it is indeed the case that if the Makah succeed in changing the basis for aboriginal whaling to a cultural need, as opposed to a subsistence need, the Japanese, Icelanders, Norwegians, and many others will claim the same right.
...If the Makah kill those whales this October, the harpoon cannons of the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and Antarctica will be pouring the blood of thousands of whales into the sea.

      To the huge whale-watching industry along the British Columbia and Alaska coasts, the loss of a relatively small number of gray whales may not be noticed in a physical sense - however, the negative publicity caused by the hunt could be very costly to coastal communities such as Tofino, British Columbia. That of course calls into question the motivation of the protestors - is the blockade being attempted because of concern for gray whales, or for tourist dollars? The normally clear waters of Puget Sound are very murky right now.

Some Hunt Opponents

  • The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (as the Whale Guardian Network) had a map of the area, and an extensive series of articles on their Web site, detailing their views on the cultural and economic aspects of the hunt.
  • Greenpeace has an extensive archive of whaling articles, although the Makah hunt isn't addressed directly.
  • The Progressive Animal Welfare Society has a lot of information about the hunt, and about Makah culture. A page on human sacrifice, slavery and warfare was very interesting - although credited to turn-of-the-century photographer Edward Curtis, who has been known to stretch the truth for theatrical effect, if it's even partly true it provides food for thought.
  • The Animal Welfare Institute launched their "Save the Whales" campaign in 1971; there is no information on their Web site about this hunt, however.
  • The International Marine Mammal Project, a branch of the Earth Island Institute, is working to stop commercial whaling, which some define the Makah hunt as.
  • StopWhaleKill.org (2002 - the Web site is gone) focussed it's effort on stopping the fall 1999 and any future hunts.

Some Hunt Supporters

  • The Makah Nation has a fairly lengthy explanation of their justification for the hunt on their site.
  • The International Whaling Commission Web site has extensive information on their mandate, powers, and legislative actions.
  • The United States government
  • The Nuu-Chah-Nuulth Tribal Council of Vancouver Island has sent support boats, and are negotiating with the Canadian goverment for the same right to resume hunting Mah-ac.
  • The High North Alliance was formed to "defend the right of coastal communities to utilize marine mammals sustainably," but all sides of the debate are presented on their Web site, using a very interesting "chain-of-logic" design.

More Information

Viewpoints on this issue range from the "kill no animals, eat no meat" side to the "we are the supreme species" one. Be aware of where you stand, and why.

More Fishing & Whaling Links