5 Makah men plead guilty in rogue whale hunt, avoid jail time

SEATTLE — Five members of the Makah Tribe who killed a gray whale during a rogue hunt last September are expected to serve no jail time under a plea deal reached with the federal government, a defense lawyer said Monday.

Jack Fiander, an attorney for one of the men and a spokesman for all of them, said they were scheduled to each plead guilty Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to one count of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a misdemeanor.

The government agreed not to recommend jail time as part of the deal, Fiander said. A lawyer for the tribe, John Arum, said the Makah will dismiss tribal charges if the men plead guilty in federal court as scheduled.

The defendants continue to believe they were acting within their tribal treaty rights when they harpooned and shot the whale Sept. 8 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Fiander said, but they acknowledged there was enough evidence for the court to convict them. The whale sank and was not harvested.

“We recognize that the written laws and court decisions are currently against us,” Wayne Johnson, who captained the whaling crew, said in a prepared statement.

The others indicted were Theron Parker, Andy Noel, William Secor and Frankie Gonzales.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle declined to comment before the pleas were entered.

The killing was a public relations disaster for the tribe, which had been working with federal authorities to arrange a legal hunt, and Makah officials rushed to Washington, D.C., to assure the government they did not approve.

The Makah, who have a reservation on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula and have been whalers for centuries, signed a treaty with the United States in 1855 which guaranteed their customs and traditions in return for giving up claims to thousands of acres of forest and tidal lands.

After the federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994, the Makah sought to resume whaling, and five years later, with a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Makah tribal members killed their first whale in more than 70 years.

Animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe must obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.

Fiander said he hoped the Makah would continue to work with U.S. authorities to ensure the tribe’s right to hunt whales.

“Litigation of these matters through the courts has become a risky business,” he said. “The United States Congress is the proper body to address tribal affairs.”

The five originally faced charges of conspiracy, unlawful taking of a marine mammal and unauthorized whaling, all punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. They also faced tribal charges of violating the tribe’s Gray Whale Management Plan, breaking state and federal laws, and reckless endangerment.

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