Concerns About Aboriginal Whaling

By Captain Paul Watson

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has received letters taking issue with the article we posted on our website entitled "Alaskan Whalers Kill Two Children and a Bowhead."

The posting referred to an incident last month where two 11-year old children died needlessly when the whaling boat they were in capsized. The boat was not equipped with immersion suits, floatation suits, or even life jackets.

As a seaman for over forty years, I find this tragic incident to be a grossly irresponsible act, and therefore, I can only conclude that the operator of the boat was negligent in bringing young children onto the water where the chances of survival if capsized are slim to none.

The Yupik must comply with the same safety regulations that apply to all vessels in U.S. waters.  If this had happened anywhere else in the United States the responsible adults would have been properly charged with manslaughter.  Alaska Statutes specifically provide that boats must carry a flotation device for every person on board and that a boat operator may not carry a child under the age of 13 who is not wearing a United States Coast Guard approved flotation device -  [Alaska Statutes, Title 05, Section 05.25.010].  The suggestion that the children of the Yupik do not deserve the protections given to other children is racist and unacceptable.

A message from Vi Waghiyi, the Coordinator for the Environmental Health & Justice for St. Lawrence Island, contends, "This was an act of God, the boat capsized due to rough waters, not an ‘extremely irresponsible' act of the whalers."  But God cannot be blamed for the fact that there were no immersion suits or even life-jackets in the whaling boat, nor can He be blamed for the fact that young children were taken out to sea in a small boat, in rough conditions.

It has been said that:

"Accidents do not happen - they are caused by negligence and by hazards in the environment. Never forget - every accident is a preventable incident."

And this was easily preventable.  The children should not have been in the boat.  If they were to be there, they should have had the proper safety equipment.


Other Yupiks have suggested that they have the right to imperil their children because it is traditional.  We have long passed the time when tradition can be used as an excuse to endanger or kill children.

In mining villages, traditionally, children once went underground to help their fathers dig for coal and many of them died.  Past traditions in other parts of the world regularly injured young girls and women.  Today the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child provides for the welfare of children and specifically states: "Any custom, tradition, cultural or religious practice that is inconsistent with the rights, duties, and obligations contained in the present Charter shall to the extent of such inconsistency be discouraged."  The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires countries to:  "...take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children."  Taking children out in rough seas in small open boats without any safety equipment is without question "prejudicial to the health of children."

A letter from Branson Tungiyan, the Vice President of the Yupik Village of Gambell, claims that the bowhead whales are no longer on the endangered species list.  He is wrong.

The website of the National Marine Fisheries Service states:

Bowhead whales, Balaena mysticetus (Fig. 1), are currently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) and depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA).



Environment Canada states:


The bowhead is species listed under the Species At Risk Act and describes it as Endangered, on Schedule 2 pending public consultation for addition to the more serious listing under Schedule 1.


The website for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Bowhead whale as endangered:


The International Whaling Commission (IWC):

This organization does allow for the killing of Bowheads by aboriginal communities. This makes the killing legal under international law, but the IWC does not state that the Bowhead whale is not endangered.

Therefore, to summarize, while Sea Shepherd is very sorry to learn that children died in this tragic incident, we make no apologies about our concern that safety gear should be carried on the whaling boats nor for our belief that the death of the children was attributable to gross and inexcusable negligence. We have found no evidence to suggest that the deaths could not have been avoided.  We believe that the United States Coast Guard should investigate this incident on the grounds of safety concerns and that regulations be enforced requiring the carrying of immersion suits or at least floatation suits.