With Enemies Like These, the Whales May Have a Chance

Commentary by Paul Watson
Founder and President of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

A federal grand jury in Seattle has charged five members of the Makah tribe with misdemeanor counts in the killing of a protected resident gray whale without a permit in September. The indictment charges the five men with conspiracy, unlawful taking of a marine mammal, and unauthorized whaling, all punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. However, most likely there will be no fine, and certainly no jail sentence. It appears that the pre-meditated murder of an intelligent, socially complex, and "protected" whale is merely a misdemeanor.

According to the indictment, on the morning of September 8, the five men took two motorboats into the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the Makah tribal reservation at the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula and harpooned the California gray whale. They then shot it at least 22 times with a high-powered rifle. The whale sank, and its body was not recovered. Tragic yes, but the death of this one whale may save the lives of hundreds of whales if the Makah are denied a permit to kill whales after demonstrating that the tribe has no control over its whalers. The killing was a public relations disaster for the Makah, who had been working with federal authorities to arrange a legal hunt. One of their backers, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wa) backed off from her support when news of the death of the whale broke.

This is the second whale illegally killed by the Makah in the last eight years. The first whale was illegally killed in May 1999 by the Makah, prompting a court order that the tribe must secure a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue killing whales. The Makah were, in fact, on the threshold of securing this waiver when the five trigger-happy Makah thugs opened up on an unsuspecting resident gray whale on September 8. And as it turned out, these were not just any thugs. They were the official Makah whaling crew, including the captain of the whalers, Wayne Johnson. Indicted with Johnson were Theron Parker, Andy Noel, William Secor, and Frankie Gonzales. Johnson bragged last month to reporters and said that he wasn't sorry for what he had done. "I'm not ashamed," he told the Seattle Times. "I'm feeling kind of proud. . . . I should have done it years ago. I come from a whaling family, on my grandmother's side and my grandfather's side. It's in the blood."

Johnson also made the absurd comment that the whale gave itself to the men, thus making a mockery of Makah tradition. There were no rituals, no sacrifices, no spiritual preparations, no prayers, and certainly no demonstrations of respect. There was simply the pumping of hot lead into a gentle unsuspecting creature. For these men to claim spiritual tradition as a justification for their cowardly and criminal act is absurd.

The five whale killers are to be arraigned in the U.S. District Court on October 12 in Tacoma, Washington. They may unknowingly have saved other whales with their actions. They certainly stirred up popular opinion against the Makah by demonstrating that they are irresponsible and contemptuous of federal, state, and Makah tribal law. They exposed themselves as cheap and shoddy trophy hunters posing as "traditional whalers" and demonstrated that the Makah Tribal Council is incapable of managing its whaling crews. Perhaps in the end, our protests, interventions, legal suits, and political appeals will have caused less damage to the resurrection of Makah whaling than the actions of these five thugs.

Apologists for Wayne Johnson and Theron Parker say that the men were frustrated and decided to act on their "treaty rights." However, it was not frustration that drove them out onto the water to kill a whale last month. It was plain and simple stupidity. I know Wayne Johnson, and he is an angry killer. He wanted to kill a whale and had no intention of having the law, tribal leaders, or anyone else tell him what to do. But the problem is that his own tribe is fearful of putting him on trial, because a conviction could weaken Makah treaty rights.