NEAH BAY — The Makah Indian Tribe said Monday it was flying some of its members to Washington, D.C., to assure the state’s congressional delegation the tribe did not authorize the killing of a gray whale over the weekend.
The tribe has spent years trying to win back federal approval to exercise its treaty rights to hunt whales.
In 1999, five years after the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, members of the northwest Washington tribe legally hunted and killed their first whale in seven decades.
The hunt was met by fierce protests and animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency reviewing the waiver request, said he does not believe Saturday’s whale killing will affect the tribe’s application.
But Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson Jr. said he feared it has damaged the tribe’s case — both with the fisheries service and the public.
“We know it’s going to hurt,” Johnson told the Peninsula Daily News.
Five men have been accused of harpooning and shooting a California gray whale with a high-powered rifle in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Saturday morning. One witness reported hearing 21 shots fired.
The Makah Tribal Council denounced the killing, calling it “a blatant violation of our law” and promising to prosecute those responsible.
The U.S. Coast Guard detained the five men Saturday, then turned them over to tribal authorities. The council said the men were booked into the tribe’s detention facility, released after posting bail and will stand trial in tribal court.
All five could face civil penalties of up to $20,000 each and up to a year in jail, Gorman said.
Emily Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said Monday that prosecutors were still collecting and reviewing reports about the incident before deciding whether to pursue criminal charges.
The Makah delegation headed to the nation’s capital hoped to meet with Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and with Rep. Norm Dicks, all Washington Democrats.
“They need to know that we didn’t condone the hunt,” Ben Johnson said.
The 30-foot whale was pronounced dead about 10 hours after it was harpooned. It sank in 500 feet of water about a mile east of Cape Flattery and two miles south of the Canadian border.
On Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was “very upset” by the killing, but encouraged that the tribe has denounced it and vowed to prosecute those responsible.
“Not only did we lose a very important species here, but that is now sitting at the bottom of the water. It’s not even to feed the poor at the tribe. It does nothing. And it flies in the face of the law,” Gregoire said in a weekly meeting with reporters.
The Humane Society of the United States sent a letter Monday to the fisheries services’ assistant administrator urging that the agency suspend its review of the waiver request that could allow the tribe to resume whale hunting.
The animal welfare group said the killing “raises grave questions about the Makah’s ability to manage a lawful hunt in the future.”