In Neah Bay, Whale Strike Provides a Feast

Neah Bay (file image)

By The Maritime Executive 08-24-2018 07:57:47

The small port of Neah Bay, Washington is the home of the Makah Nation, a Native American tribe with a unique and controversial treaty right: whaling. The Makah have not been able to exercise that right for decades, but this year, they were able to harvest a whale without hunting at all.

On Thursday morning, tribal fishermen found a dead humpback whale off the town of Sekiu, on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Two biologists confirmed that it had likely been killed by a ship.

"It was a 31-foot juvenile male, apparently died from a ship strike," said NOAA Fisheries biologiest Michael Milstein, speaking to Radio Pacific.

The fishermen towed it back to Neah Bay, just in time for the annual Makah Days festival. In comments to local media, tribal chairman Nathan Tyler made clear that the whale's death was not a cause for celebration, and that the animal would live on in the community's culture. 

In pre-colonial times, the Makah counted on gray whales as source of food and oil. When the tribe agreed to transfer most of their land to the U.S. government in 1855, they specifically reserved the right to hunt whales. In practice, the Makah's hunting came to a stop in the early 1900s after commercial whaling decimated the gray whale population off the Pacific Coast. The tribe exercised its right to whale once more in 1999, when it received authorization for a single hunt, but it has been prohibited from repeating the ritual over the two decades since. 

The gray whale population along the Pacific coast of North America has recovered over the last century, and is now in the range of 26,000. Since the species is no longer endangered, the tribe still hopes that it will be allowed to resume whaling once more.