Makah Whaling Essay Scholarships
During the summer of 1996, in Neah Bay, off the northwesternmost tip of the United States, a member of the Makah Indian tribe named Dan Greene hauled in a baby gray whale that he said had drowned in one of his fishing nets. Greene towed the 15-foot whale to a local beach, where Makah families poured out of their homes to take a look.
It was a fortuitous time to catch the whale, since the Makah, at the urging of Greene and a handful of others, were planning to start hunting them. Or, more accurately, restart hunting them, since the Makah had whaled up until the early 20th century, stopping after commercial fishing had made the whales all but extinct. Now they have decided to start again, and a few of the tribe’s more enthusiastic members wanted to use this opportunity to practice eating their catch.
There was just one problem: None of the Makah knew what to do with a dead whale. Eventually, an Eskimo visiting from Alaska showed the men how to peel back the whale’s skin and blubber before carving the meat beneath. Soon enough, a hefty package of whale meat was given to every member of the tribe who wanted it. Depending on whom you ask, the meat was either eagerly consumed or discreetly discarded in the town dump.
Now the Makah are preparing to send a canoe of eight men into the bay this October to hunt the Pacific gray whale during its fall migration. One hunter will carry a gun that shoots massive, .50-caliber bullets and will put the harpooned whale out of its suffering. Tracking the Makah’s every move will likely be a swarm of media helicopters, a flotilla of protesters, and an even larger phalanx of law enforcement and government officials trying to ensure that whales are the only ones that get hurt. Away from the desolate bay, the hunt, which is being challenged in court by a Washington state congressman, also raises questions about whether it will lead to an erosion of international bans on whaling, and about the White House’s curious role in supporting — and funding — it. This year the government gave the Makah $75,000 in aid for the hunt, adding up to a total of $335,000 over the past three years.
All this from a tribe that wants to whale but doesn’t even know how.
The road to Neah Bay, Washington, five hours west of Seattle, is filled with wicked curves and abrupt turns and ends at the reservation, which is dominated by wooded cliffs, a long beach, and a seemingly peaceful bay. With a population of about 2,000, the town of Neah Bay is dominated by prefab homes and trailers. Unemployment on the reservation hovers around 55 percent. Drugs and alcohol are also nagging problems, along with the kind of juvenile petty crimes that afflict any small town where tedium can mutate into violence. But conditions are not as bleak as they are on many Indian reservations. There is no abject poverty. There are Federal Express deliveries, two cafés, two small motels, a modern supermarket, and a roadside espresso stand.
It’s estimated that the Makah have lived in Neah Bay for at least 4,000 years, but Alberta Thompson, a Makah elder, says simply that the Makah have been there “forever.” Thompson is 74, and these days she feels her age. Arthritis has settled into her joints, and when she walks she steps gingerly, like a woman on a ledge. She wears glasses and is almost blind in one eye. Thompson is one of the few Makah — perhaps the only one — willing to speak out against the whale hunt. “I have been harassed time and time again,” she says, criticized by fellow Makah in the press and pressured not to talk to outsiders.
For most of their existence, the Makah hunted whales. They used the meat for food, the blubber for oil, and the bones to make tools. The last Makah whale hunt, according to a 1974 book by Ruth Kirk and Richard D. Daugherty, titled Hunters of the Whale, took place in 1910. But others say 1926, and the date will probably remain uncertain, since there are no Makah alive who can remember it, and written documentation of Makah history is scant.
In 1994, the tribe’s petition to remove the gray whale from the endangered species list was finally accepted by the government, after the Makah pointed out that while there were only 12,000 gray whales in the world when the animal was placed on the list in 1969, the whale population had since grown to more than 22,000. By 1995, the Makah Tribal Council, the tribe’s five-member ruling body, informed the U.S. government that the Makah intended to start hunting again.
The tribal council pointed to an 1855 treaty in which the Makah ceded thousands of acres of land to the United States but explicitly retained the right to whale — the only American Indian tribe to possess that right. “We had our treaty,” says John McCarty, the former executive director of the tribe’s whaling commission. “And our treaty gives us the right to whale.” Noting that whale meat is a delicacy in Japan, Greene told tribal leaders, according to Thompson, that a single gray whale could be sold to the Japanese for $500,000, a substantial amount of money for the small tribe.
“Selling the whale was a thought,” concedes McCarty. “And I’ll be honest with you. Selling the whale could be very, very advantageous to the tribe.” Thompson says the whale hunt was Greene’s idea: “He decided that we should go whaling because there would be money in it.” Greene did not return phone calls for this story.
So the Makah told the U.S. government of their plans to hunt. And, surprisingly, they found an ally.
The fight to save the whales is supposed to be one of environmentalism’s great successes, and it has become such a cliché you can’t even find it on bumper stickers anymore. But the battle over whaling has really never been won, and has certainly never ended. As whale populations have started to rebound, whaling nations have argued that modern hunting can be more scientific, that whale “takes” could be managed and sustainable.
This line of reasoning leaves whaling opponents with a more philosophical argument: The whale is a higher form of animal, too intelligent and communicative to kill. That also doesn’t wash with the whalers, who respond that whales are like any other animal, and opposition to hunting them is an example of Western cultural imperialism. Is killing a whale so much worse than fattening, drugging, and confining a calf in a stall so that restaurants can offer a tender piece of veal? Such arguments have anti-whalers on the defensive. “Things are deteriorating,” says Gerry Leape, legislative director for Greenpeace.
The organization at the center of the worldwide fight over whaling is the International Whaling Commission, founded by whaling nations in 1949 to manage the “harvesting” of whales. It didn’t work: The world’s whale population shrank until several whale species were nearly extinct. As the populations dwindled, the number and influence of anti-whaling nations within the IWC grew, and its emphasis shifted from whale hunting to whale preservation.
The United States has long been one of commercial whaling’s most ardent and eloquent foes; it was largely because of U.S. pressure that the IWC passed a worldwide commercial whaling moratorium in 1986. It was a huge victory for environmentalists, but an incomplete one. The moratorium, for one thing, didn’t end all whaling. Norway exploits a provision that allows it to kill hundreds of minke whales annually. Japan also kills several hundred whales a year, feeding a booming demand from upscale restaurants for whale meat by classifying certain hunts as “scientific whaling.”
The only other exceptions granted were for “aboriginal subsistence,” which exempted specific aboriginal peoples, such as Alaskan Eskimos and Siberian Chuktchis, who have a history of eating whale meat and a clear need for the food. Even to environmentalists who hated the thought of any whales being killed, the logic was hard to refute: These aboriginal communities couldn’t take enough whales to harm whale populations, and they needed the meat to survive.
At the turn of the century, the Makah would surely have met the IWC criteria for an aboriginal whaling quota. But at the moment, they clearly do not. First, the Makah have survived for most of this century without whale meat. Second, the traditional IWC definition of aboriginal subsistence whaling requires that a community have a “continuing” tradition of hunting and eating whales. The Makah have had at least a 70-year period without such activity. Surely, they don’t qualify for the exemption.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a branch of the Commerce Department, helps set U.S. policy toward whaling and represents the United States with the IWC. For decades, it has been sympathetic to anti-whaling groups, working closely and sharing information with their representatives at annual meetings.
Yet NOAA was receptive to the Makah’s request — with just one qualification. “We made it very clear from the very beginning of their discussions that we could never support any proposal that had a commercial element,” says D. James Baker, the head of NOAA. The Makah agreed to the stipulation: They would not hunt whales in order to sell the meat — though they insist they have the right to do so, and might revisit the prospect in the future.
With the profit motive moot, the Makah’s stated rationale for the hunt shifted to historic preservation. Explains Makah tribal chair Ben Johnson, “The whale hunt will not only bring the community together, but it enriches our culture.”
Once the Makah agreed not to sell the meat, Baker granted the tribe $200,000 in NOAA funds to help establish a whaling commission and prepare for the hunt. And, in the summer of 1996, Baker traveled to Aberdeen, Scotland, to argue at the IWC meeting that the Makah should be allotted an annual whale quota on the basis of subsistence need and cultural survival.
IWC meetings are usually contentious, but that year’s meeting was reportedly feistier than most. If the Makah had a subsistence need, opponents said, then so did aboriginal peoples around the world who also had not whaled for decades. Already, representatives from Canadian tribes were proclaiming that they intended to follow the Makah’s lead. The United States, environmentalists pointed out, was broadening the definition of aboriginal subsistence whaling in a way that could undermine the whale-hunting moratorium.
The IWC’s dryly written meeting report speaks volumes about the extent of opposition to the United States’ plea: “France… asked how subsistence requirements could arise after 70 years of non-whaling.… The Netherlands expressed concern at the widening of the scope of whaling activities…. The People’s Republic of China…regretted that the request was not completely in accordance with the IWC definition of aboriginal subsistence…. Oman asked why the Makah, who had survived without whaling for 70 years, could not continue to survive without whaling…. Australia questioned whether IWC nutritional subsistence criteria had been met…. Chile expressed its doubts…. The People’s Republic of China and New Zealand had similar concerns on continuity and need, a position shared by Mexico….”
Japan, however, “commended the USA’s presentation and expressed understanding of the welfare of the Makah.” Meanwhile, the reported coziness between the Makah and the Japanese delegation aroused the suspicions of the anti-whaling groups — Sea Shepherd, PAWS — that believed the Japanese had either put the Makah up to the hunt, or were covertly backing them.
After all, in 1996, the year of that conference, Japan and Norway had kicked in at least $20,000, according to the Seattle Times, to help start a pro-whaling group, the World Council of Whalers, just across the strait from Neah Bay in British Columbia. Even if the Japanese couldn’t immediately buy the Makah’s whale meat, the hunt was one more assault on the whaling moratorium.
Opposition to the U.S. was so vehement that Baker withdrew the Makah proposal, announcing that he would bring it up at the next IWC meeting, in Monaco in 1997.
Why had NOAA decided to support the Makah hunt in the first place? Whaling, Baker says, “has always been a part of their culture.” Even though they haven’t whaled for more than 70 years? “They have occasionally come upon stranded whales and have had no problems dealing with those, butchering them, and sharing them with various members of the tribe,” Baker insists, incorrectly. In any case, is the memory of the whale in a tribe’s artistic culture enough to satisfy IWC requirements for aboriginal subsistence whaling, including the criteria for continuing nutritional need? Baker says yes.
What is clear is that the Makah’s treaty right allowing them to whale put the government in an awkward position, torn between an international moratorium and a historical treaty. Which took precedence? NOAA didn’t want to test either one. Challenge the whaling moratorium, and the agency would ignite international fury, not to mention the wrath of domestic environmental groups. But contest the Makah’s treaty, and it would risk a political firestorm from all American Indians, all of whom live under similar treaties with the federal government. Says one source close to the U.S. delegation at the time, “One hundred percent of the U.S. decision to back these guys was based on the U.S. not wanting to be in court.”
The issue was sensitive enough for Baker to seek a sign-off from the White House — specifically, according to several sources, the Council on Environmental Quality in the office of the president. Elliot Diringer, spokesman for the council, confirms that “the vice president was kept apprised.” According to Diringer, “The way things generally work is that agencies proceed and keep us advised of what they’re doing, and if somebody feels a course adjustment is needed, they let it be known.”
So Baker proceeded with what became NOAA’s strategy: the argument that, in fact, there is no conflict between the Makah’s treaty right and the moratorium on whaling because the Makah are a legitimate candidate for the aboriginal subsistence exemption.
At the IWC meeting in Monaco in 1997, the U.S. tried again, this time succeeding. In a “fact sheet” handed out by NOAA, the agency presented its case: “Subsistence hunting includes far more than physical survival. It is a way of life that includes historical practices and is the cultural ‘glue’ that holds the Tribe together.” That definition surprised many who were present.
“If you set a precedent that changes the standard for the meaning of aboriginal whaling so that it becomes simply a cultural need, where do you draw the line?” asks one American observer. “Somebody tells me that Japanese whaling is not cultural? Bullshit. Of course it is. This [precedent] was what the whalers wanted.”
Under pressure from the American delegation, the IWC accepted a secretly negotiated plan under which the Makah would be allotted a kill of up to four whales a year, out of nine attempts.
When the Makah heard the news, McCarty says, the tribe erupted in celebration. “People stopped all their work, they got in their cars, honking their horns like someone got married. It was like winning the Super Bowl.”
This is a fight that has shattered traditional political alignments. Liberals in Washington state have been quiet about the Makah hunt, perhaps finding it uncomfortable to criticize an Indian tribe that claims to be fighting for its cultural survival. Greenpeace says it opposes the hunt but doesn’t have the resources to do anything about it. A spokesman for the Sierra Club says, in the tortured language of politics, “At this point, the Sierra Club has decided to take a position of not opposing the whaling rights of the Makah tribe.”
But the Makah are still exposed to attacks from one of their longtime foes, Rep. Jack Metcalf (R-Wash.), who has filed suit in the District Court of Washington, D.C., to stop the hunt, challenging that NOAA’s new policy violates the government’s own environmental laws.
Metcalf, however, is an unlikely environmentalist — he’s a supporter of the “property rights” movement and receives low ratings from green groups in Washington, D.C. And Metcalf does have a long history of opposing American Indian rights. “The United States government,” Metcalf says, “[is] biased in favor of giving Indians special rights. I just disagree with that.”
His beliefs can be traced to his childhood. Metcalf’s father was a commercial fisherman who bought land on Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, east of Neah Bay, just before the Depression hit, and then had to work 18-hour days to keep it. Metcalf grew up and became a public school teacher with some ardently conservative — some would say far-right — beliefs (he has, for example, written a book calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve).
Metcalf, 70, and his wife of 50 years, Norma, built their house on his father’s land, using trees from the property. Pulling into the driveway of that home, which they have converted into a bed-and-breakfast, it’s easy to pass right by the congressman. Dressed in a blue button-down shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, he is bent over, hoeing a row of corn. Lanky and white-haired, Metcalf ambles over and offers a dirty hand through the car window.
Elected to Congress in 1994, he was the oldest member of the Republican freshman class of ’94, and among its most conservative. In 1996 he retained his seat by a narrow margin, and this year he’s running against a bona fide political celebrity: Democrat Margarethe Cammermeyer, a former officer expelled from the Army for being a lesbian whose story became a TV movie starring Glenn Close. Cammermeyer’s Hollywood connections — Close and Barbra Streisand have thrown fundraising bashes for her — are helping her amass a campaign war chest likely to top $1 million.
Metcalf’s aides admit that they hope the Makah issue can peel away some Democratic voters disaffected by her noncommittal stance. According to her press secretary, J.R. Baker, Cammermeyer “really hasn’t taken a position” on the hunt. “It’s a hot-button issue, and we’re trying to stay away from hot-button issues,” Baker explains, pointing out that the Makah aren’t even in Metcalf’s district.
Asked why he’s fighting the Makah, Metcalf tells a story of how once, as a young man, while fishing with his father, they drifted among a pod of orcas. (Later, while doing a news database search, I found the same story, almost verbatim, in several other articles.)
Walking along the beach, Metcalf talks about the fishing he loves when, without warning, he bends down and plunges his arms into the wet sand up to the elbows. Burrowing with his hands, he throws chunks of sand behind him, like a kid building a sand castle. Finally he reaches out, holding up a shrimp, 5 or 6 inches long, with one short pincer and one long one waving frantically. Couldn’t eat them, he says, though the flesh makes good bait. He then gives the shrimp a yank with both hands and tears it in half to show its pulpy meat. Without breaking his stride, he tosses the two halves onto the beach; the top half continues to squirm on the sand as he strolls away.
“The whaling would certainly relieve the boredom of a few young Makah people,” Metcalf says. Even if his suit fails, he believes the Makah will face a backlash. “In the long run, the tribe will lose.”
On one wall of the Makah Cultural and Research Center sits a small glass case that contains whaling tools — hooks and rope — and a plaque describing how the Makah used to hunt whales. The Makah men, “noted for their ability as fishermen and hunters,” are even “more noted for their exploits as whale hunters.”
In the past, young men underwent special rituals to purify themselves, and would then set out in long cedar canoes. “Whale hunting utilized almost every technical skill possessed by the Makah.” When a whale was sighted, the bowman would stand and throw a 16-foot-long harpoon, hooked with two barbs at the end so that it could not exit the whale’s flesh without causing great gashes. Attached to each harpoon was a rope connected to a sealskin bag, a flotation device to track the whale and make it harder for the animal to dive. Once the animal died, a Makah would dive into the water and sew its mouth shut, so that it would not fill with water and sink before it was towed back to land.
Today, hunting methods are different. The .50-caliber gun was the suggestion of a veterinarian advising the Makah on how to be as humane as possible. “The bullet is from the tip of your thumb to the end of your fingernail, and if you’ve got a big thumb, it’s as round as your thumb,” says McCarty. “One time there was a beached whale and he wasn’t very old, like 23, 26 feet, only a day or two after he died. A really fresh one. And we shot the whale with this big gun, and we’d dig into the whale and see what happened. There were a couple bullets we couldn’t find and a couple shattered bones and the one [bullet] in the skull [made] a big cavity that was 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep. The veterinarian said that would either stun or kill the whale immediately.”
Of course, the Makah don’t want to resuscitate all of their heritage. Nowhere at the Cultural and Research Center does it mention, for example, that the same 1855 treaty that preserved the tribe’s right to whale also prevented them from owning slaves, which they had up until that time. It’s easy to romanticize the story of their ancestors conquering the whale, of primitive man slaying the wild beast.
McCarty’s 27-year-old son, Micah, will be among the eight hunters, and he says that, to prepare, he has been canoeing several hours a day for months and participating in rituals he won’t describe to an outsider. He grew up living on and off the reservation, attending high school in Olympia, Washington. “I never felt that my soul could be happy participating in that arena,” he says. “I couldn’t see myself going to work knowing that my earnings will go to an establishment that is trying to destroy our culture.”
At 19, Micah returned to Neah Bay and has lived there ever since, designing tattoos and carving Indian-themed gifts. Yet even on the reservation, about as removed from American society as any culture existing on American soil can be, he feels the need to resist the “white man’s” world and believes that the whale hunt, somehow, will help keep it all at bay. “Bringing this whale back into the culture,” he says, “will save us from being swallowed up.”
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES
The gray whale is known as both the friendly whale and the fighting whale. Yupik Eskimos who hunt the gray whale in Alaska, and 19th century commercial whalers who hunted the gray whale in Mexico have each called it “devil fish” because of its reputation for fighting back and overturning boats when attacked.
Today, gray whales are protected by law, and tourists who view them at their breeding and calving grounds in Mexico, regard them as friendly. The whales seem to be curious about these tourists and frequently swim up to their boats and allow the visitors to touch their barnacle-covered backs. The experience is thrilling and many people believe the whales enjoy it, too.
The gray whale has the reputation as another kind of fighter, a fighter against the forces that would bring about its extinction. The species has fought its way back from the brink of extinction on two occasions. Like other large whales, gray whales were commercially hunted and their numbers were reduced to just a few hundred at two different times.
The eastern Pacific population of gray whales has made a remarkable recovery as a result of legal protection. In 1995, this population was removed from the endangered species list. Unfortunately, other species of whales have not been able to recover as quickly as the eastern gray and most remain highly endangered.
The gray whale’s range formerly included the coasts of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The Atlantic population had been hunted to extinction by the 1700s and in the early 1900s it seemed that the two Pacific populations (eastern and western) would follow.
However, in the 1940s the species became protected by international agreement, and today the eastern Pacific population has recovered so much that it is no longer considered endangered (although it is still protected). Population estimates indicate that there are more than 20,000 gray whales in the eastern Pacific, approximately equal to estimates of the historic population.
The eastern Pacific population of gray whales was removed from the endangered species list in 1995, but the western Pacific (Korean) population, which has not recovered at all, remains listed. The status of the western Pacific population is relatively unknown, but it is believed to be highly endangered and close to extinction. The gray whale is an interesting case study because one population is extinct, one is endangered, and one is recovered.
All whales are mammals, and they are more closely related to cows than to fish. They are warm-blooded, breathe air and give birth to live young. Adult gray whale females mate every other year and are pregnant for more than a year. The calves are born in January or February, and they can be up to 12 feet (4m) long and weigh 2,000 pounds (900 kg).
Gray whales are bottom feeders, dredging the sandy ocean floor for amphipods, isopods, tubeworms, and other bottom-dwelling organisms. They are in the class of whales that have no teeth, called baleen whales. They eat by using baleen, a fringed plate that lines the upper jaw and traps prey in the mouth while water is filtered out. Most feeding takes place in their summer grounds in Alaska between May and September, and some feeding occurs during migration. Adults rarely feed while in and around their breeding lagoons in Baja California.
The only animal known to prey on gray whales, other than humans, is the killer whale (Orcinus orca). However, an analysis of tooth scars on stranded gray whale carcasses indicates that these attacks frequently are not fatal.
The eastern Pacific population of gray whales has the longest migration of any mammal, traveling up to 10,000 miles (16,000 km) round trip from the summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chuchki Seas in Alaska to the winter breeding and calving grounds in Baja California.
The trip takes about four months and the whales swim day and night, even while sleeping. They stay close to the coastline, and swim alone or in small groups. The migration is staggered according to age and sex, with pregnant females leading the way, followed by other females, adult males, and then immature females and males. On the way back north the migration is similar, with the newly pregnant females leading the way. Females with new calves bring up the rear.
Although gray whales are protected throughout their range, they receive special attention at the breeding and calving grounds in Baja. In the 1970s, Mexico designated refuges in three of the four major lagoons the whales use. To prevent disturbance of the whales, boats are allowed to enter the lagoons only with a governments permit.
The fact that gray whales congregate together in the winter for mating and calving has been partially responsible for both their difficulty and their recovery. In the 1800s, when commercial whalers discovered the calving lagoons, the concentration of whales in the shallow waters made their wholesale slaughter very easy.
By the 1890s, the gray whale was almost extinct and most hunting stopped. In the 1920s, they were again commercially targeted, and once again, brought to the verge of extinction. There probably were only a few hundred individuals left when they were finally protected by international agreement in the 1940s.
Since the 1940s, other protected whale species have languished near the verge of extinction, but the eastern gray whales’ population has increased steadily. Some scientists believe gray whales have fared so much better than other species because, despite their low population numbers, they have no trouble finding mates because they gather in the small lagoons, the same factor that once made their slaughter so easy.
Causes of Endangerment
Commercial whaling has been the main threat to all large whales. In the past, whale products included margarine, gelatin, shoe polish, cosmetics, paint, soap, glue, corset frames, lubricant, candle wax, lighting oil, and of course, whale meat. Many whale oil products were gradually replaced with cheaper petroleum-based substitutes as they became available.
Commercial whaling is regulated by the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which voted to phase out all commercial whaling in 1982. Not all whaling nations agree with the ban, however, and the IWC’s ability to enforce prohibitions is limited. Norway withdrew from the IWC and resumed commercial exploitation of minke whales (Baleanoptera acutorostrata) in 1994.
Both Norway and Japan kill whales for scientific purposes, although many observers believe that the true purpose of this continued whaling is commercial use. Whale meat now sells for about $300 per pound ($136 per kg) in Japan, and a recent DNA survey of whale meat for sale in Japan showed that 9 out of 16 samples, more than 50 percent, came from endangered whale species that are internationally protected.
Certain native groups have engaged in subsistence hunting of whales for thousands of years. Subsistence hunting differs from commercial hunting in that the whales are consumed in the locale where they are caught, rather than sold. Many Eskimo, or Inuit, communities in the United States depend on whaling for economic, social, and cultural survival. The IWC allows some exceptions to the whaling ban for subsistence purposes. While it has been controversial at times, Inuit subsistence whaling is not considered to be a major threat to whale populations.
After the eastern Pacific gray whale was removed from the endangered species list in 1995, the Makah tribe of Washington State began preparations to resume subsistence hunting of this species which formerly was one of their most important resources. The five or six whales the Makah propose to take each year are not likely to threaten the continued recovery of gray whales.
Pollution poses a threat to whales around the world. Chemical contaminants in the water and in whales’ food sources may accumulate in their systems, and because they are long-lived, may reduce longevity and reproduction.
Beluga whales are a kind of toothed whale, whales with teeth rather than baleen, that may be endangered in part because of chemical pollution. Although they are protected from hunting, toxins such as DDT and PCBs contaminate the food they eat accumulate in their fatty tissues and cause a high rate of cancer in adult belugas.
The level of toxins is even greater in the rich milk that mothers produce to nurse their babies. The babies feed on this milk for a year or longer, and in this way each succeeding generation becomes more contaminated. The Atlantic population of belugas was reduced to about 500 whales in the 1970s, and chemical pollution may help explain why their numbers have not increased at all since then.
Oil is another kind of chemical pollution that can harm whales. Twenty-nine gray whales were reported stranded in Alaska near the area of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989. Whales may ingest contaminated prey and sediments, or contact with oil may impair the filtering efficiency of their baleen.
Another important concern is that air pollution has depleted the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Reduced ozone levels allow more harmful ultraviolet radiation (UVR) to reach the southern seas, and increased UVR may harm the phytoplankton and krill (tiny crustaceans) that the whales depend on for food. Exposure to UVR also may be responsible for skin lesions observed on whales in the area.
Shipping poses a threat to some whale species. The North Atlantic right whale is highly endangered, and collisions with ships in the southeastern United States are killing one or two whales per year. Although this loss may not seem like much, it is having an effect because the species has only about 300 individuals left and produces only 10 calves each year, several of which die of other causes.
Fortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the United States government agency responsible for helping whales recover from endangerment, may have found a way to help prevent these deaths. Spotter planes are flown over key areas where the whales gather, and the pilots radio ships to warn captains to steer clear of the whales.
Boat traffic from well-meaning whale-watchers also may pose a threat to some species. Regulation of whale-watching boats to keep them a safe distance from whales is necessary to ensure that these vessels do not disturb the animals they wish to observe. Responsible whale-watching can help educate people about these wonderful animals and should be encouraged.
Commercial fishing can have a negative impact on whales in two ways. Overfishing has heavily depleted many fish stocks around the world and removing food sources can harm the whales that depend on those fish. Whales also can become entangled in fishing nets, and because they are air-breathing mammals, entanglement frequently leads to drowning.
Coastal development can pose a threat to whales that depend on near-shore habitat. Offshore drilling for oil and gas can cause increased noise disturbance, pollution, and threats from shipping. Dredging and vessel traffic associated with a salt extraction plant in one of the Mexican lagoons used by gray whales for breeding caused the whales to abandon that area in the 1960s. When the plant was closed the whales returned.
Another salt operation in a different lagoon appears to have been tolerated by the whales, perhaps due to the dynamics of shipping in that lagoon. The Mexican government is considering proposals for more salt development in the area.
Conservationists and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) disagree on the effects of the proposed developments. Conservation groups believe that the new salt operations may be a threat to gray whales, while the NMFS does not think the impact will be significant.
The moratorium on commercial whaling approved by the IWC in 1982 went into full effect in 1986, and is just beginning to have an effect on whales, most of which reproduce very slowly. International protection has not helped most whales as much as it has helped the gray whale.
The blue whale, largest of the whales at an average of 89 feet (27 m) long, was protected by the IWC in the mid 1960s. Since then the population has continued to decline, however, and there are only about 1,000 blues whales left. Protected right whales also have declined from 300,000 to 3,000, while humpback whale populations have fallen from 120,000 to 10,000. Illegal hunting is a major problem.
A recent development and cause for hope is the newly created whale sanctuary in the Antarctic. In 1994, the IWC created an 11-million square mile protected area in prime feeding habitat of the Antarctic that is used by many baleen whales. Enforcement of the whaling ban in this area remains a problem, and continued efforts are necessary to make the sanctuary effective.
Programs to help minimize conflicts and collisions between whales and ships, such as the spotter planes described earlier, are helping to protect whales. Another project is attempting to plot whale migration routes, so ships can be directed to avoid areas where whales frequently travel.
Responsible tourism is helping to create a constituency of whale lovers who are helping to fund whale conservation efforts. Adopt-a-whale programs, where people donate money and receive reports on the well-being of a selected individual whale that is tracked in the wild, year after year, are helping to fund scientific research that increases our understanding of whales.
Whale-watching trips are becoming increasingly popular and as the industry grows, the power and incentive to preserve whales increases. It is important that the whale-watching boats do not disturb the whales. In Mexico only a limited number of boats are permitted in the gray whales’ breeding and calving lagoons. To obtain a permit, boat captains must agree to follow rules that protect the whales.
In the United States laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act prohibit harassment of or harm to whales. Regulation helps protect coastal whales such as the gray, but most whales live in the open ocean and are outside the jurisdiction of any one country.
These whales can recover only if many nations cooperate to help protect them.
Questions for Thought
Although gray whales are a coastal species, most other whales are primarily open-ocean dwellers. What is the best way to protect species, such as the blue whale, that roam the seas in waters outside the jurisdiction of any one country?
Indigenous people who have traditionally hunted whales for thousands of years had little or no part in the massive commercial slaughter that has brought so many whale species to the brink of extinction. They received no benefits from the slaughter that now threatens the whales they depend on for subsistence.
Whaling can be critical to the economic and cultural survival of some native groups. What is the best way to approach the inequity of this situation when regulating whaling?
Small coastal villages in some countries such as Norway have participated in commercial whaling for several generations and may be dependent on revenue from whaling for survival.
Should the international community try to persuade these villages to participate in the ban on commercial whaling? Or should they be treated the same way as native peoples who whale for subsistence purposes?
Activities: [CS1-1,CS1-4,CS1-8, General]
Words in bold italics can be found in the glossary.