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Thursday, October 1, 1998 Published at 22:08 GMT 23:08 UK

World: Americas

Indians revive their whaling ways

The Makah: Paddling into controversy

A group of American Indians is trying to revive a long-lost tradition by embarking on their first whale hunt in 70 years - despite opposition from conservationists.

The Makah, from the North Pacific coast, are picking up their harpoons again to restore local pride among the young.

[ image: 'Devil fish' fight rather than flee]
'Devil fish' fight rather than flee
But conservationists plan to scupper their plans with a submarine painted like a killer whale.

The Makah whale-hunting tradition died out when world demand for whale oil brought the animals to the brink of extinction.

There is no one alive among the Makahs who has ever gone whaling, but they have heard stories and songs about it all their lives.

Like their ancestors, they will paddle out in a cedar canoe and strike first with a harpoon.

Mark Percy: Mainstream America is divided over the issue
But they will use a .50 calibre rifle to ensure a more humane kill, and there will be two motorised boats to tow the catch home to Neah Bay.

The hunt was approved last year by the International Whaling Commission, which ruled that the 2,000-member tribe could take up to five whales a year from 1998 through 2002.

But as none of the Makahs has whaled before, those going on the hunt have been picking up tips from Eskimo whalers from Alaska and the Russian Far East.

Hunt banned from Canadian waters

Grey whales, which grow up to 15 metres and can weigh 40 tons, were prime targets for the ancient Makah as they migrated to Alaska in the spring and then to Mexico in autumn.

[ image: The Makah: Lessons from Eskimo whalers]
The Makah: Lessons from Eskimo whalers
But their descendents say they do not want the whales for food.

They believe resumption of whaling will restore pride in a community blighted by unemployment, crime and drugs.

But Canadian environmentalists fear it could weaken a global moratorium on whaling.

And they have vowed to wreck the Makah's big day out.

They have recorded distress signals to alert the whales to the danger and plan to deploy a submarine painted like a killer whale.

The Canadian Government has also said it will not allow the Makah to conduct their hunt in Canadian waters, although it will let them pursue a wounded whale that swims into Canadian waters.

Greys declared endangered in 1973

Before petroleum refining, whale blubber was widely used for lamp oil.

New England whalers, who nicknamed the greys ''devil fish'' because of their tenacity, reduced the population from an estimated 30,000 to 4,000 by the early part of this century.

[ image: A catch in pre-ban days]
A catch in pre-ban days
In 1973, grey whales were put on the first endangered species list.

Numbers have climbed back to about 22,000, and the animal was removed from the list in 1994, prompting the Makah to reassert the whaling rights they were granted in an 1855 treaty.

Under Makah hunt protocol, meat and oil from each kill must be distributed to tribal members before another whale is taken.

But as one tribal elder remarked, after a 70-year hunt ban no one knows whether they like whale meat any more.

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