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Makah leaders meet with senators about whale shooting

By Matthew Daly
Washington, D.C. (AP) 9-07

Leaders of the Makah tribe expressed regret to federal officials and members of Congress September for the unauthorized killing of a gray whale off the coast of Washington state.

At separate meetings with Washington's two senators and top leaders of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tribal leaders reiterated their condemnation of the killing, which has drawn international attention to the tribe's efforts to revive its traditional whale hunting.

Five Makah men are under investigation by tribal authorities and the National Marine Fisheries Service in the killing of the California gray whale, which was harpooned and shot several times September 8th in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, about 120 miles northwest of Seattle.

Micah McCarty, a tribal council member who attended the meetings, acknowledged that the hunt “inflamed an already controversial issue,” but said he was optimistic the tribe's request to renew whale hunting would not be affected.

“They seemed confident we're on the right track and are taking corrective action,” he said of NOAA officials and the two Washington senators. NOAA is considering the tribe's request for a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow ceremonial and subsistence whaling.

“It's a public relations setback,” McCarty said at a news conference, but added that “it shouldn't impede” the tribe's request for a waiver to allow hunting of up to five whales per year.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called Saturday's hunt “a very serious situation,” but commended the Makah leaders “for immediately condemning this rogue act and taking steps to prosecute the offenders.”

“I believe that the Makah tribe is taking the right steps to move forward from this situation and I will be monitoring their progress,” Murray said in a statement. “I know this has been a painful event with high emotions on all sides.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., declined to comment on the meeting, which her staff called a “standard constituent meeting.” But in a statement Monday, Cantwell said it was “wrong that these individuals (who killed the whale) bypassed an ongoing legal process.”

“There are many outstanding questions and ongoing investigations surrounding this incident, and I will be monitoring closely,” she said.

Spokeswoman Monica Allen said NOAA Fisheries Director William Hogarth and NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher also met with the tribal leaders September 9th. Hogarth was pleased at the meeting and was convinced “the tribe is taking this very seriously, and they are on top of it,” she said.

Brian Gorman, a spokesman for fisheries service in Seattle, said the five men arrested September 8th weekend could face civil penalties of up to $20,000 each and up to a year in jail if convicted of hunting illegally. Criminal prosecution under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act is rare, he said.

Gorman confirmed that the fisheries service was nearing a decision on the tribe's waiver request for a new legal hunt. In 1999, five years after the gray whale was taken off the endangered species list, members of the northwest Washington tribe legally hunted and killed their first whale in seven decades.

“The episode over the weekend has certainly slowed things down. We're going to have to reconsider the whole process. It doesn't mean we're withdrawing from it,” he said. “We need just to have a little breathing room.”

McCarty said the five men would be prosecuted under tribal law. Already, two of the men have been forcibly removed from the tribe's 23-member whaling commission.

“It's a test of sovereignty,” he said, adding that the tribe hopes to complete its legal process before federal or state authorities step in.

The U.S. Coast Guard detained five men believed to have killed the whale on Saturday, then turned them over to tribal police for further questioning.

McCarty said he understood the frustration of tribal members impatient to reclaim their whaling right, but said tribal leaders were committed to following the federal process. A decision by NOAA Fisheries is expected by 2010, he said.

On the Net:
Makah Nation: www.makah.com/
NOAA Fisheries: www.nmfs.noaa.gov/
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