SEATTLE – A gray whale illegally killed in September by five members of the Makah tribe took nearly 10 hours to die because the hunters shot it 16 times in the wrong place, according to a tribal report delivered this week to federal fisheries officials.
The report says the hunt broke nearly every rule in the tribe’s own whaling-management plans. It also says it took federal officials more than seven hours to authorize a tribal request to put the whale out of its misery.
“This was very different from the 1999 hunt,” the author of the report, tribal biologist Johnathan Scordino, told the Seattle Times on Thursday. In that hunt, which was legally authorized by the tribe and federal fisheries officials, the whale was killed with two shots from a high-powered rifle by a trained marksman. The animal died within eight minutes.
“A lot of people are concerned about the humanity of the hunt, how long the whale is going to suffer,” Scordino said in the interview. “The tribe, in its management plan, went to great extent to ensure little suffering.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service requested the report to assist an analysis being done for an environmental-impact statement needed to approve any future legal whale hunts by the tribe.
The Sept. 8 hunt in the Strait of Juan de Fuca was done without a permit from either the tribe or the fisheries service. Five men – Wayne Johnson, Billy Secord, Frankie Gonzales, Andy Noel and Theron Parker – are charged in federal court in Tacoma with misdemeanor violations of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. They have pleaded not guilty. The tribe has also promised prosecution.
According to Scordino’s report, the hunt was full of problems.
The five men set out from Neah Bay and quickly found a gray whale. They allegedly harpooned it four times and shot it 16 times.
According to the report, they had the right gun for the job: a .577-caliber rifle, the same gun that had been powerful enough to quickly kill a whale legally in 1999. But the gun was misfired and wound up overboard.
The men also had a Weatherby .460 Magnum rifle and a shotgun aboard, according to the report. But the .460 did not have the power to kill the whale quickly unless fired directly at the brain stem. The untrained marksmen allegedly shot at the wrong part of the whale’s head and didn’t hit its brain stem. They also may have used the wrong ammunition.
At 10:44 a.m., the suspects were interrupted by the Coast Guard, which kept the suspects and others away from the whale. The suspects asked to go back to Neah Bay to get more ammunition to finish off the whale because it was suffering, Scordino wrote. But the Coast Guard would not allow it.
Bureaucratic delays allowed the whale to suffer for hours as it slowly bled to death, said Scordino, who arrived at the scene at 3:06 p.m. and watched the whale for about four hours until it died.
Donna Darm, assistant regional administrator for protected resources at the fisheries service, said the agency moved as quickly as it could on the request to euthanize the whale. It took time for Scordino to get on the scene, and for the fisheries service to get Scordino in touch with a federal veterinarian. The two had to confer about whether the whale was mortally wounded and should be euthanized. When they agreed that was the case, Darm needed to find someone capable of humanely killing the animal.
The Coast Guard declined, saying it didn’t have the right weapons. Tribal officials wanted permission in writing to kill the animal because, under a court order, the tribe needs a federal waiver to kill any whale. Writing such a document and e-mailing it to the tribe took until 7:15 p.m., Darm said.
By then, the whale had died. It later sank and was not recovered.