March 17, 1999

Japan's Kill-the-Whales Plot

By Sarah Christie

In Neah Bay, Wash., at the center of it all was a sleek cedar canoe. Micah McCarty, a Makah Indian in his 20's, sat in the bow.

McCarty wore feathers in his hair and a Speedo bathing suit. Between his knees he cradled a hand-made harpoon whose steel tip had never tasted blood.

Surrounding the canoe was a ring of aluminum speedboats, their outboards idling. In them were more Makah men, carrying .50-caliber assault rifles which were to do what Micah's single harpoon likely would not -- bring the life of a California gray whale to an end.

Six U.S. Coast Guard vessels flanked these small craft to protect the Makah from the outermost ring of participants in this ocean-going stand-off. Beyond the armed escort vessels floated a rag-tag armada of kayaks, zodiacs and private yachts captained by conservationists from around the world.

The "save-the-whales" flotilla had gathered off this northwestern corner of the United States to support the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's protest of the first government-sanctioned whale hunt in mainland waters since the United States led the charge for a global ban on commercial whaling in 1982.

The vessels rocked in the cold North Pacific chop, while an ancient journey passed somewhere beneath them. Somewhere out there swam the quarry, a gray whale, ranging up to 50-feet-long, one of 22,000 bound for the warm calving lagoons of Mexico.

The Makah -- who gave up whaling more than seven decades earlier -- failed to catch any of the behemoths in that first hunt in fall 1998. But the tribe vowed to return to the sea in the spring when the gray whales migrate northward again. Then, the mothers and their calves swim closer to land.

Along with the whales, the surrounding political controversy was certain to return, too. Neah Bay had become a watery stage for one of the most complex environmental debates of the decade: the Clinton administration's decision to support the Makah tribe's request to hunt, kill and eat as many as five gray whales a year.

The administration argues that the hunt will let the Makah revive their cultural heritage, while the modest-sized catch will cause "no adverse conservation impact." Loathe to appear hostile to Native American rights, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and other "big green" groups stayed largely on the sidelines.

But government documents indicate that the Makah whale hunt might have a more sinister side than a small tribe's desire to reach back to its indigenous roots. Newly discovered records suggest that the Makah have served as a front for Japan and Norway to advance their long-held goal of loosening international restrictions on whaling.

Though stressing the cultural argument in public, the tribe's management plan described the initial whaling operation as an "interim ceremonial hunt." Makah leaders made no secret of their longer-range desire to process gray whales and other sea mammals for sale to Japan where whale meat is an expensive delicacy.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveal, too, that the Makah have had discussions with Japan and Norway about strategies for circumventing the worldwide ban on commercial whaling. Part of Japan’s plan, it seems, was to manipulate the Clinton administration into presenting the Makah’s case before international conservation agencies.

Significantly, the Makah whale hunt already has opened the door to the argument that "cultural" concerns can justify the hunting of whales, a rationale that Japan has pressed unsuccessfully for years on behalf of its traditional whaling communities.

In recent years, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has permitted only remote tribes dependent on whale meat for survival to hunt the intelligent sea mammals. The IWC's vigilance has saved some whale species from extinction and enabled the gray and some other whale species to rebuild their populations.

By the end of the 19th century, commercial whaling had decimated the number of gray whales from an estimated high of 30,000 to less than 3,500. In the 20th century, more efficient whaling ships with exploding harpoons pushed a variety of whale species to the brink of extinction.

But the slaughter sparked public outrage over whaling and led to conservation programs in the United States backed by both Democrats and Republicans. In 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act made it illegal to kill, harm or harass gray whales in U.S. waters. In 1973, the gray whale -- then numbering about 10,000 -- was added to the federal endangered species list.

Around this powerful conservation movement, a new whale-watching industry grew. Millions of international eco-tourists witnessed the struggle of the gray whale and other endangered whale species first hand.

In 1982, the United States championed the next phase in a save-the-whales battle on the world's oceans. U.S. representatives pushed through a global moratorium on commercial whaling. The ban transformed the International Whaling Commission from a body overseeing global whaling quotas into an organization dedicated to preserving the world's whale populations.

The IWC banned commercial whaling and only authorized whale hunts by a few aboriginal tribes that depended on whaling for survival. The tribes that qualified for "subsistence whaling" included the Alaskan Eskimo, the Siberian Chukchi of Russia, the Greenland Inuit and the Bequians of St. Vincent.

Japan and Norway -- with large investments in modern whaling fleets -- opposed the moratorium and continued to kill whales under the guise of scientific research. The two countries also tried to stretch the loophole for "subsistence whaling" to include their historic coastal whaling villages that had hunted whales commercially.

Year after year, the IWC rebuffed those initiatives. Though the Japanese and Norwegian villages did have long traditions of whaling, the IWC ruled that the communities did not depend on consumption of whale meat to survive.

The Makah, a small indigenous tribe of about 2,000 people in northwestern Washington, also survived quite well without eating whale meat. Their ancestors had hunted whales for 1,500 years and the right was enshrined in an 1855 treaty with Congress in which the Makah ceded much of their land to the federal government.

But the tribe abandoned whaling in the 1920s because of the decline in the gray whale population. By the 1990s, no living Makah had gone whaling and only a few elders remembered eating whale meat as children.

In the early 1990s, the Makah appeared more eager to promote their reservation as a tourist spot for environmentalists than as a base for whale hunting. Indeed, one of the tribe's drawing cards for tourists was the chance to observe wildlife up close, including the migrating gray whales that swam near land and sometimes used docks to scrape off barnacles.

By 1994, protected by federal law, gray whales were passing through Neah Bay in greater numbers. With the gray whale rebounding to about 22,000, the federal government declared the conservation project a success and removed the gray whale from the endangered species list.

That change contributed to the Makah's thinking about whaling again, though initially they hid their plans. In 1994, the Makah petitioned Congress to urge that federal research money be spent on truly endangered species, not the gray whale.

The petition stated that the Makah's intentions were "aimed not at allowing the hunting of gray whales but so that research money can be shifted to other species in need of monitoring, such as salmon or marine birds."

Quietly, however, the Makah took a first step toward the renewed hunting of sea mammals. Makah hunters killed four harbor seals in 1994. [Seattle Times, May 25, 1995]

Still, the Makah continued to pursue federal funds to enhance the reservation's reputation as an eco-tourist spot. In March 1995, the tribe won a $4.5 million grant to improve their marina and breakwater for "fishing, tourism and whale watching."

Just a few days after the grant, the tribe approached the National Marine Fisheries Service with a proposal to resume the Makah's ancient practice of whale hunting for both "cultural and commercial purposes."

From the start, it appeared the Makah were eyeing the lucrative Japanese market for whale meat. According to an internal e-mail from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Makah tribal attorney John Arum met with NOAA's assistant secretary Michael Tillman on March 23, 1995. Arum inquired about obtaining a whaling permit and expressed the tribe's desire to pursue commercial whaling.

"Maggie [NOAA's legal counsel Margaret Hayes] informed me that Arum had told her that Japanese interests had approached the Makahs about selling whale meat to them," Tillman reported. "So I wasn't surprised when he asked me generally about commercial sale."

Tillman told Arum that sale of whale meat was strictly prohibited. But, Tillman suggested, if the tribe developed a "needs request" based on personal consumption, the U.S. government would present the request to the annual meeting of the IWC, as it had been done for the Alaskan Inuit.

In April 1995, the tribe's commercial whaling goals were described in greater detail at a meeting of the Pacific Scientific Review Group in Hawaii. Terry Wright represented the North West Indian Fisheries Commission of which the Makah tribe was a member.

Wright told the review group that "the Makah intend to harvest gray whales, harbor seals, California sea lions, minke whales, ... 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 products to both countries. The plant could be used to process the catches of other tribes as well."

The Makah scheme was met with "shock by some, recognition by others who had already heard of their plans," remembered Jay Barlow, a marine mammal researcher for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

John Heyning, curator of marine mammals at the Los Angeles County Museum and a representative at the Hawaii meeting, noted that the gray whale was only one of the review group's worries. "We were just as concerned about the impact on other mammals, such as the harbor porpoise," said Heyning.

Denise Dailey, chairman of the new Makah Whaling Commission, indirectly confirmed Wright's account even as she insisted that it was an unauthorized and premature presentation.

"We had no idea he'd go off to [the review board meeting in] Hawaii and blab everything to them," Dailey said. "In the beginning, we talked about how it [commercial whaling] would be nice. ... [But] we accept there is a moratorium. We still believe we have a treaty right for commercial whaling. But if we wanted to go commercial whaling, we'd just go do it and tell [the U.S. government] 'so sue us.' But we are not interested in commercial whaling right now."

Still, commercial whaling was referenced again in the Makah's formal proposal on May 5, 1995. "We have a right to harvest whales not only for ceremonial and subsistence purposes but also for commercial purposes," tribal council chairman Hubert Makishtum wrote to NOAA.

Later in May, Makah fisheries manager David Sones told a Seattle Times columnist that "the tribe hopes in the future to do some commercial whaling. There are markets overseas for meat and oil. ... The value of a gray whale is estimated at a half-million dollars." [Seattle Times, May 25, 1995]

With tribal leaders thinking about both culture and commerce, the Makah played some political hardball with the Clinton administration. Margaret Hayes, a government lawyer and a member of the U.S. delegation to the IWC, said the Makah threatened to sue the federal government for violation of treaty rights if the administration did not push their request.

The U.S. representatives knew that the Makah proposal would generate a public outcry. "We explored many different options," stated Hayes, "including rejection of the proposal. ... In the end, we decided to carry their request to the IWC." In exchange, the Makah agreed not to assert their commercial whaling right "at this time."

Dan Morast, president of the International Wildlife Coalition, saw the administration's retreat as political, with President Clinton facing re-election in 1996.

"The Clinton/Gore administration didn't want a Native American treaty rights issue blowing up in their face," said Morast. "It [the decision] had to have come from the White House. That's the way it works in these affairs."

Some members of the U.S. delegation saw their negotiations with the Makah as aimed at limiting the number of whales hunted. "Our instructions are to negotiate a quota," Morast quoted the delegates as saying.

But the Clinton administration went beyond lip service in pressing the Makah's cause. The NOAA gave the Makah $335,000 over two years to prepare a "needs statement" justifying the hunt; to create a tribal whaling commission; and to travel to IWC meetings to lobby the commissioners. These expenditures offended some conservationists.

"It's obscene," complained Humane Society marine mammal biologist Naomi Rose. "To come up with discretionary funds in that amount to foster the killing of whales when NMFS [National Marine Fisheries Service] claims it can't afford to enforce conservation laws is perverse in the extreme."

In 1996, the IWC met in Aberdeen, Scotland, with the U.S. delegation carrying the Makah's request. The proposal sought a hike in the existing global gray whale quota by five whales per year for the next four years. The IWC already had permitted the Russian Chukchi to hunt 140 gray whales a year because the remote tribe ate whale meat to survive.

By contrast, the Clinton administration did not argue that the Makah's physical survival was at stake. Will Martin, a deputy assistant secretary of commerce, asserted that the Makah needed to hunt whales to enhance their indigenous culture and boost the quality of life on the Neah Bay reservation. Martin cited high unemployment, a failing salmon fishery and cultural degradation as the reasons for the U.S. request.

The U.S. case was undercut by anti-hunt Makah who traveled to Aberdeen. "We are not poor," tribal elder Alberta Thompson told IWC members during breaks between sessions. "We have telephones and satellite dishes and most families have more than one vehicle. We have a state-of-the-art grocery story. Nobody in that tribe will ever go hungry. We don't need to eat whales to live."

Pro-whaling Makah leaders, dressed in full tribal regalia, countered with accusations that Thompson and other dissidents were "exploited" by environmentalists who paid for their trip to Aberdeen.

Nevertheless, the U.S. appeals fell on deaf ears. The majority of IWC nations appeared ready to side with the anti-whaling contingent. The tribe had not shown a genuine subsistence need, the commission noted, observing that the tribe had survived more than 70 years without eating whale meat.

Several countries, including New Zealand and Australia, went further, expressing disappointment that the United States would promote such a motion. When U.S. delegates concluded that they could not get the three-fourths majority required to grant the Makah request, they withdrew it.

Russia also failed with its own motion to increase the quota of bowhead whales. Russia wanted the IWC to permit the Chukchi to kill some bowhead whales along with the Chukchi’s allotment of gray whales. In the world of whale cuisine, bowhead is valued far more than gray whale, comparable to filet mignon versus chuck steak.

While the Chukchi met the subsistence test, a majority of IWC commissioners rejected the Russian proposal because the bowhead was a severely endangered species. The IWC also cited the Chukchi's failure to fill their quota of gray whales and the tribe's inhumane whaling practices.

Like the United States, Russia vowed to return in 1997 when the quotas for both the gray whale and the bowhead would be reconsidered as part of a five-year review. Under those rules, only a simple majority would be needed to revise the quotas.

The Clinton administration saw the makings of a deal in the Russian request. In previous years, the United States had no incentive to share the existing bowhead quota which was the Alaskan Eskimo's exclusive right. But the Makah's desire for part of the gray whale quota created the basis for a possible quota swap.

The United States would give Russia four bowheads per year in exchange for five gray whales. On paper at least, the number of slaughtered whales would remain about the same.

Tillman, NOAA’s assistant secretary, insisted that the plan was not a "trade" of bowheads for grays, only a "bilateral agreement" between the United States and Russia. But the Clinton administration still had to persuade the IWC to approve the Makah's whaling request based on "cultural need."

In 1997, the IWC reconvened in Monaco with the Clinton administration unveiling the new strategy. Instead of asking the IWC to approve the Makah's "needs statement," the U.S. representatives addressed the question of quotas.

Since the U.S.-Russian deal would not raise the worldwide quota for bowheads and actually lowered the quota for gray whales, the IWC lacked any scientific grounds for denying the request, the U.S. argument went. The proposal did not name the Makah as the tribe interested in taking gray whales. It only mentioned "an aboriginal tribe."

But the semantics were spotted as an end-run around the IWC's rule that whale hunting must be needed for a tribe's survival. Delegations that had opposed the Makah's request in 1996 were livid. So were conservationists.

"What the U.S. has done is to shine a big spotlight on the fact that there is a loophole ... big enough to drive a truck through," complained the Humane Society's Naomi Rose.

The Australian delegation tried to block the U.S. move by proposing an amendment that would require that whales could only be taken by a "North American aboriginal tribe whose cultural and subsistence needs have been recognized by the IWC."

The U.S. delegation took offense and the meeting turned ugly. One observer said, "things got so embarrassing, with arguments breaking out on the floor of the open meeting, they called a 'commissioners' meeting' -- a closed-door session for commissioners only."

The sole subject was the U.S. desire to gut the Australian amendment. "The U.S. said, 'Look, this is it. We know some of you don't like it, but let's hear from those of you who are going to formally oppose it.' And they went around the table. They [the Australians] needed a majority to keep it in, and no one felt strong [enough] to take on the United States," said the observer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Clinton administration had played its own hardball. The whaling regulations were revised to permit the killing of 20 gray whales over the next four years in the United States by a "tribe whose aboriginal subsistence and cultural needs have been recognized."

The U.S. representatives contended that the United States, not the IWC, had the authority to qualify the Makah as meeting those requirements. Australia and many environmental groups disagreed on the grounds that the IWC had never fully reviewed the Makah's claim.

"IWC policy that does not explicitly allow the Makah a gray whale quota could ... constructively abrogate the Makah's treaty right to take whales," stated the Journal of Environmental Law and Litigation. [Vol. 11, 1996]

Ray Gambell, secretary to the IWC, echoed that opinion. In a letter to a Seattle maritime attorney, Gambell wrote, "The IWC has specifically not passed judgment on recognizing or otherwise the claim by the Makah tribe, since the member nations were clearly unable to agree."

Elliot Morley, British minister of fisheries, also stated that the Makah "had not established a valid claim for an aboriginal quota."

But U.S. spokesman Scott Smullen defended the quota maneuver. "The beauty of the joint [U.S.-Russia] request is it actually reduced the number of whales that could be taken," Smullen said. "It was a win-win."

Initially, at least, the federal courts agreed, rebuffing a legal challenge filed by Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash.

Perhaps more troubling to anti-whaling forces, the Makah issue drove a wedge between traditional allies while emboldening whaling nations that want to undermine the IWC's global commercial ban.

"This sort of thing is a slippery slope," said John Heyning, an adviser to the National Marine Fisheries Service. "If you allow one group to whale because of historic take, you have no reason to say 'no' to Norway or Japan who may have been whaling longer than the Makah. When it's all or nothing, it's pretty clear. We as a society agree to certain things, but when we exempt individual groups of people, we open the floodgates."

The Japanese whaling industry saw the opening that the Makah case created. "It certainly is perceived as having a positive effect in Japan and elsewhere," said Jay Hastings, an American counsel to the Japanese Fisheries Association which oversees Japan's commercial fishing-and-whaling industries.

Like the Makah, Hastings noted, Japanese fishermen lived off whaling for centuries. Whale hunts were part of their culture. "Japan is 80 percent mountains; it is not suitable for farming," contended Hastings. "We [Americans] have depended on the land for our food. They depend on the sea. These people have whaled for food for centuries. It's a marine-oriented culture."

Hastings said Japan's four coastal whaling villages have suffered unfairly because the decline in whale populations was caused by industrial whaling that killed whales primarily for oil, not meat. Although Japanese coastal whalers sold their catch, Hastings felt it was unfair to lump them in with past sins of industrial whalers.

Yet, huge profits can be made in Japan from whaling. Some cuts of whale meat sell in Japan for more than $80 per pound and a "Got Milk?"-style ad campaign extols the virtues of whale meat. As a romantic gift, whale meat is sometimes packaged in thin slices.

The meat carved from whales killed by the Japanese government for "scientific research" has proved so lucrative that Japan launched a brand-new $14 million catcher ship on Nov. 6, 1998. A Japanese press release proclaimed that the ship, the Yusha Maru, would usher in "a new era of whaling."

On another front, Japan has recruited small island nations to join the World Council of Whalers, a pro-whaling group. The council worked with Canadian tribes to insert whaling rights into existing treaties. Japan and Norway donated at least $20,000 to the effort.

"The idea is to bring whalers together as a group to lobby and discuss problems and decide what to do," explained Hastings. The Makah initiative clearly fit into this larger Japanese strategy to erode the IWC regulations.

Japan dangled a financial carrot before the Makah as well. The Japanese have expressed an interest in buying the Makah's catch, an offer that presumably encouraged the Makah's planning for the plant to process the meat from marine mammals.

But Japan's real interest apparently was to enlist the tribe to lobby the Clinton administration into pitching the case for "cultural whaling."

Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and members of his crew -- who led the at-sea protests against the Makah whaling -- reported that they discussed Japan's strategy with a Japanese delegate to the IWC, Tadio Nakamura.

Watson said the conversation took place on Oct. 22, 1996, at the Stella Polaris Cafe in Monaco during the annual IWC meeting. Watson bought several rounds of drinks for Nakamura and other Japanese delegates and found them surprisingly candid.

"Nakamura told us he had visited Neah Bay and met with tribal officials," recalled Watson. "The purpose of his visit was to convince the Makah that there were financial incentives to exercising their treaty [whaling] rights. But then Nakamura told us that, in fact, the Japanese had little interest in purchasing the meat. He told us, 'Gray whale meat does not taste very good.'"

When Watson asked why the Japanese would lure the Makah with empty promises, Nakamura allegedly replied, "Don't you see? Once they win the right to kill whales in the U.S. for cultural reasons, the IWC will be obliged to recognize Japanese whaling as cultural also."

In an interview, Watson claimed that more than a dozen tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast are poised to file similar claims for "cultural whaling" rights. "It does not take a great deal of imagination to envision the next step. ...

"Once securing their cultural rights to kill whales, indigenous peoples may then contract with a commercial whaling vessel to actually kill and process the whales assigned to them. They can argue that 'subsistence' is not limited to direct consumption, but can be ascribed to the revenue generated by the sale of whale meat, as is being done in Siberia with the fox farms and in Japan with small whales.

"The motivation is clear. With the loophole our administration just carved out, there will be no way to regulate the piracy that will result."

Clinton administration officials scoff at Watson's dire predictions. "There is no way the Makah would ever be able to sell that meat, even if they wanted to," said the NOAA's Smullen. "The level of scrutiny is too high. This hunt is for tribal subsistence and cultural purposes only."

While the Makah planned to kill up to five gray whales in 1998, the hunt failed to land any whales. The presence of the Sea Shepherd vessels and other protesters, combined with rough seas and changes in the whales' southward migration, prevented Micah McCarty's harpoon from finding its mark -- or the assault rifles from finishing off a speared whale.

The Makah vowed to renew the hunt this spring, when the northward migration begins. Then, the cows with calves will swim closer to shore. Similarly, Sea Shepherd promised to resume its vigil against the hunt.

But the bigger battles over the future of the whales will not be decided on the choppy waters of Neah Bay. The larger war will be won or lost in richly paneled board rooms in cosmopolitan cities where corporate executives and international policymakers meet.

"Everyone thinks the whales have been saved," said Naomi Rose. "But all you have to do is attend one of these Byzantine, arcane, political meetings to realize nothing is ever really saved."

Sarah Christie is an environmental writer based in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

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