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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Makah Whaling

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with reporters Orlando de Guzman and Terry FitzPatrick about the taking of a whale this week by the Makah Indian tribe in waters off Washington state. They discuss the importance of the hunt for the tribe and its implications for a meeting this week of the International Whaling Commission.


CURWOOD: For the first time in 75 years, the Makah Indians of the Pacific Northwest can call themselves whalers. A few days ago they harpooned their first migratory whale off the coast of Washington State, and towed it ashore to be butchered in a jubilant celebration.

(Singing, drumming, women's ululations)

CURWOOD: The hunt follows years of conflict pitting tribal rights against animal rights. Several anti-whaling protesters were arrested after risky attempts to disrupt the Makah on the high seas. The hunt also comes at a critical point for the International Whaling Commission, which this month is considering a dramatic change in the global ban on commercial whaling. Joining us are two reporters who have been following this, Orlando de Guzman of KUOW Public Radio in Seattle.

DE GUZMAN: Hello, Steve.

CURWOOD: And Living on Earth's National Affairs correspondent, Terry FitzPatrick, also in Seattle.


CURWOOD: Let me turn to you first, Orlando. You were there as the Makah landed their first whale in seven decades. What was that like?

DE GUZMAN: Steve, this is certainly the biggest thing that's happened on this sleepy reservation. It was both a solemn and joyful moment as the cedar canoes paddled in, and you could clearly feel that the Makah accomplished what they set out to do, which is rekindle their cultural connection to the sea that dates back 15 centuries. The elders carefully buried the heart of the whale on the beach while singing traditional prayers, and the meat is being distributed throughout the reservation. This is the way things were until 1913, when the Makah suspended hunting because commercial whalers had nearly wiped out the gray whales. The Makah feel that resuming the hunt is a powerful assertion of what it means to be Native American.

CURWOOD: But the Makah were not out there alone. There were a number of protesters, and it must have been pretty tense there at sea.

DE GUZMAN: Quite tense, Steve. Animal rights activists had a small flotilla they used to prevent the Makah from getting close enough for a kill. And at one point protesters even ran over a surfacing whale to scare it away. They shot flares at the Makah and sprayed fire extinguishers at their faces. Now, the Coast Guard confiscated three boats and arrested about half a dozen activists. And after this intervention the Makah finally had a clear shot at the whale. And, Steve, all this happened on live TV. It was a helicopter coverage with play-by-play narration from local reporters.

CURWOOD: Those images went around the world. One could say that the protesters didn't come away from this completely defeated, did they?

DE GUZMAN: Correct, Steve. Many people were shocked to see the ocean tainted with blood and the whale writhing with a harpoon in its back. The graphic footage has tremendous propaganda value. So the animal rights groups didn't come away empty-handed. The unsettling images switched the focus away from native rights and onto animal rights.

FITZPATRICK: You know, and Steve, all of this stirs up the emotional side of the whaling debate, right on the eve of the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission, the IWC. The timing couldn't have been more dramatic. And it's possible that this will land like a hand grenade just as the Commission begins a pretty delicate debate about relaxing the global moratorium on whaling, particularly commercial whaling.

CURWOOD: But Terry, the Makah hunt isn't a commercial operation, though. I mean, they don't plan to sell the whale meat.

FITZPATRICK: No, they don't. Correct. This was approved by the IWC as a rare exception to the moratorium for aboriginal subsistence and cultural reasons.

CURWOOD: So tell me about this proposal to relax the commercial whaling moratorium.

FITZPATRICK: Well, what's going on is there's a recognition that this moratorium hasn't stopped countries like Norway and Japan from going around the world and doing commercial whaling anyway. They just ignore the ban. And so, what's coming forward is an idea to try to reach a compromise with these countries, to contain their whaling operations. Under the proposal, Japan and Norway would be allowed to hunt inside their own territorial waters, where the fleet could be closely monitored, and there'll be rules so that whale meat could only be eaten in the country where it was harvested. And in return for legitimizing a domestic whale hunt, Japan and Norway would have to give up hunting on the high seas. Now, that would create a global sanctuary for whales in international waters, which is something that environmentalists have been pushing for, for years.

CURWOOD: Well, why is this proposal coming forward now? This whaling moratorium has been in place for what? The last 15 years?

FITZPATRICK: Yeah, 15 years. But its very name, a moratorium, implies something temporary. And in fact, the IWC was created to regulate whaling, not really to end it. And so, you know, even though the moratorium seems to have saved some types of whales from extinction at the hands of whalers, several species have recovered and could now survive some limited hunting pressure. So, what's happening is, the whaling debate is moving from a question of survival to a question of morals. And the IWC right now is taking a lot of heat for being hijacked, so to speak, by absolutists, such as the people who are opposing the Makah whaling hunt up here. By people who oppose any whaling, period. Now, some critics think that that is just an untenable position in the long run. Some go so far as to call it cultural imperialism. And they think that if the Commission sticks to the ban as it now exists, it just runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.

CURWOOD: Well, we're just about out of time. But quickly, Orlando, what's next for the Makah? They were after just the one whale?

DE GUZMAN: The Makah have a quota of about 20 whales through the year 2004. But it's unclear when the hunting will resume, and it's also unclear if the protesters will stick around.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you both, Orlando de Guzman of KUOW.

DE GUZMAN: Thanks, Steve.

CURWOOD: And Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure, Steve.



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