Date: Mon, 17 Jun, 1996

U.S. whaling dispute brews ahead of world meeting

by Sonali Paul

WASHINGTON, (Reuter) - A bid by the United States to let a Native American tribe hunt gray whales to revive their cultural traditions could spark an international dispute next week, environmentalists said on Monday.

Anticipating less than unanimous support for the request at the International Whaling Commission meeting in Aberdeen, Scotland, beginning on June 24, U.S. Commerce Undersecretary James Baker said he planned to focus attention on the issue. While whale protection treaties ban commercial whaling, they allow aboriginal groups like the Makah tribe of Washington state to kill limited numbers of whales if the people need the meat to eat or to sustain their culture.

The Makahs want to take five gray whales a year for cultural reasons, not for food, U.S. officials and environmentalists said.
"The precedent this could set is extremely worrying," said Ginette Hemley, the World Wildlife Fund's director of international wildlife policy.
"We should be reviewing what other approaches might satisfy that cultural gap they're facing."

Although the United States has targeted Japan and Norway for defying commercial whaling bans, it stands fully behind the Makah tribal council's request.
"There is no commercial aspect to it," said Baker, who is the U.S. commissioner to the IWC.
"It's done under a numerical quota, and permits the stock to still continue to grow."
The IWC allows Russian natives to kill up to 140 gray whales a year and lets Eskimos kill a small number of endangered bowhead whales.

Baker told reporters that the Makah, who had hunted whales for hundreds of years, stopped killing them in the mid-1920s when the mammals came close to extinction. The gray whale came off the endangered list in 1994, and there are now about 21,000 gray whales.

Environmentalists are split on the issue, with some saying the Makah plan should be allowed to go ahead."We think there are other big fights to occupy us next week," said Gerry Leape, a campaigner for Greenpeace, the environmental group which is battling Norwegian whalers.

The U.S. government could be sued by the tribe if the IWC does not approve the plan, because under a 19th century treaty with the U.S. government, the Makah have a right to whale. Animal welfare activists say the Makah tribal elders and the tribal council are split on the issue.

In an advertisement in a local newspaper, sponsored by animal rights groups, the tribal elders questioned the legality of the council's decision to propose a whale hunt, which was never put to a vote before the tribe. Makah representatives were not available for comment, and planned to issue a statement only after the IWC meeting.

Environmentalists plan to work with the Australian and New Zealand delegations as well as some European governments, which oppose whaling and have raised concerns about the Makah proposal, to try to stall or reject it.

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