A California gray whale that was shot Saturday in the Strait of Juan de Fuca in an unauthorized and likely illegal Makah whale hunt was declared dead about 7:15 p.m.
“We were monitoring its progress and following it out to sea when we saw that the buoys that were attached had stopped moving,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Eggert.
Five Makah tribal members were questioned by federal fisheries enforcement officials and then turned over to tribal police later in the day, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.
Anti-whaling activists could hardly contain their anger and dismay Saturday evening as reports spread about the hunt.
Will Anderson, the Seattle man who sued the federal government after the Makahs’ infamous 1999 hunt, said he was appalled by news that the gray whale was wounded and bleeding in the strait at the tip of Western Washington.
“Everybody is shocked and stunned,” he said. “It’s wanton cruelty against whales who have known no harm against human beings,” he said. Saturday’s hunt was a “tragic breach of faith and ethics,” Anderson said.
His friend Chuck Owens is a former commercial fisherman who lives in Joyce, a hamlet west of Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula. He said he’s getting distraught phone calls from as far as Ireland.
The question now is whether the federal government will prosecute, both Owens and Anderson said.
The News Tribune could not reach leaders of the Makah Tribe for comment.
Witnesses reported as many as 21 shots fired at the whale Saturday before 10 a.m.
Eggert said the Coast Guard – alerted by callers – went to the scene around noon, took the five Makah tribal members into custody, and left one boat to keep watch on the whale. The animal was shot a mile or two east of Neah Bay.
Coast Guard officials created a 1,000-yard safety zone around the whale but did not have training to deal with its injuries, Eggert said. By Saturday afternoon, the whale was headed west toward the Pacific Ocean, said Mark Oswell, a spokesman for the law enforcement arm of the Fisheries Service.
The Makah Tribal Council was meeting behind closed doors at the tribal headquarters in Neah Bay, on the remote northwestern tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, The Peninsula Daily News reported.
Gorman, the Fisheries Services spokesman, said the tribe did not authorize the hunt.
“It came as much of a surprise to the Makah Whaling Commission as it was to anyone else,” he said.
“Plenty of witnesses” saw what happened, Gorman said. Now it will be up to federal officials to decide whether and what charges to bring and whether they are civil or criminal, he said.
The whale was shot with a .50-caliber rifle, he said. Early news reports describing it as a machine gun were incorrect, Gorman said.
The Daily News also reported witnesses saying the whale was harpooned about 9:30 a.m. Saturday off the Seal and Sail rocks, two miles east of Neah Bay.
In May 1999, members of the Makah Tribe provoked massive controversy when they killed their first whale in 70 years. They harpooned, then killed, the 30-foot female with a .50-caliber rifle.
An 1855 treaty with the United States guarantees Makah whaling rights, but the tribe did not seek to resume hunting gray whales until after 1994, when the whales lost Endangered Species Act protection.
After the 1999 hunt, Anderson and other animal-rights activists filed suit to prevent future hunts. In December 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a stop to Makah whale hunting until the federal government prepares a full-fledged environmental impact statement.
Since then, the Makahs have requested a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which outlaws whaling. With the support of the International Whaling Commission, the tribe has proposed to take as many as 20 whales over a five-year-period.
The Makah tribal members taken into custody Saturday were first detained by the Coast Guard, Oswell said. Oswell said preliminary information indicated the whale might have been shot illegally.
The Makahs, who number more than 1,000, occupy a small reservation at Cape Flattery, the extreme northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula.
When the whale was killed in 1999, its meat was distributed to tribal members, and the carcass’ skeleton was eventually mounted in the tribal museum.
The Coast Guard, Makah tribal police, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Washington State Patrol and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife were investigating Saturday’s incident, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Kelly Parker.
The whale was about a mile off Cape Flattery on Saturday evening when it failed to surface, Eggert said. He said there had been no determination on what might happen to the carcass.