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Indians plan to hunt rare gray whales


NEAH BAY, Wash. -- The children of this American Indian village at the far western edge of the continent struggle with the usual demons of modern life -- drugs, alcohol and violent videos among them. And like parents elsewhere, Makah tribal members say that a return to old-fashioned values might be just the thing to bring their youth around.

But in this case, tradition means going out in Pacific Ocean swells to chase and kill gray whales, which have not been hunted legally in U.S. waters for more than 40 years.

Citing an 1855 treaty that makes them the only Indian nation with whale-hunting rights guaranteed by the federal government, the Makah have announced plans to kill up to five whales every spring, beginning next year.

A whale hunt, they say, would provide focus for a tribe where unemployment is running at 50 percent and the fishing fleet has been hit hard by declining salmon runs.

"Right now, there's a real frustration among the kids with what's happened to fishing," said Andrea Alexander, general manager of the 1,700-member tribe. "They thought they could grow up and be fishermen, like their parents.

"With whaling, they would get to participate in something that has real cultural and spiritual value, and they could put food on the table as well."

The Makah plan has caused an international stir, and it poses a problem for the State Department. For more than a decade, the U.S. government has led the campaign to outlaw commercial whaling around the globe.

The Makah say they want to take whales for subsistence and ceremonial purposes, not as part of a commercial operation.

All of this comes at a time when the campaign to save whales is proving to be one of the major success stories of wildlife conservation.

There are about 21,000 gray whales -- the highest number in nearly a century -- according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Last year, they were taken off the federal list of endangered species.

Taking five whales, the Makah argue, would not dent the population. The government agrees, but it has yet to sanction the hunt.

Among other things, State Department officials are worried about setting a precedent. The federal government is also worried about black-market trading in whale meat, which can fetch high prices in Japan.

If the Makah do begin taking whales next spring, an environmental group with a record of sinking whale-hunting ships has vowed to intercept the Indians at sea.

"We have a 95-foot vessel and a submarine, and if we have to, we would put them between the Makah and the whales," said Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, based in Marina Del Rey, Calif.

The Makah, who last hunted whales in 1926, have not decided exactly how to go about reviving a skill that has not been practiced here in nearly 70 years.

They would hunt with harpoons that explode on impact, which they say is one of the more humane ways to kill whales. And they plan to work with the fisheries service to develop hunting guidelines to help conserve the population of gray whales.

The Makah say they do not need permission from anyone to start hunting next year. But they have asked the United States seek approval for them from the International Whaling Commission.

"We'd like to follow the rules and have the blessing of all government agencies," said Dave Sones, a tribal fisheries manager.

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