5 Makah whalers to plead guilty in rogue hunt in Wash., their lawyer says

By The Associated Press

SEATTLE – Five members of the Makah Tribe who killed a gray whale during a rogue hunt off Washington state’s northwest coast have agreed to plead guilty to federal charges, their lawyer said Monday.

Defense attorney Jack Fiander said the government agreed not to recommend jail time as part of the deal. Each defendant was scheduled to plead guilty later Monday in U.S. District Court to one misdemeanor count of violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Fiander said the men still believe they were acting within their tribal rights when they harpooned and shot the whale Sept. 8 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But they acknowledge there’s enough evidence for the court to convict them.

“We recognize that the written laws and court decisions are currently against us,” Johnson, who captained the whaling crew, said in a prepared statement.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Seattle declined to comment before the pleas were entered.

An indictment alleges Frankie Gonzales, Wayne Johnson, Theron Parker, Andy Noel and William Secor took two motorboats into the strait and shot the California gray whale at least 16 times with at least one of the three high-powered rifles they had obtained from the tribe.

The men did not have the tribe’s permission for the hunt, nor did they have a federal permit to kill the whale, which eventually sank in the strait and was not harvested.

The five originally faced charges of conspiracy, unlawful taking of a marine mammal and unauthorized whaling, all punishable by up to a year in jail and a $100,000 fine. They also faced tribal charges of violating the tribe’s Gray Whale Management Plan, breaking state and federal laws, and reckless endangerment.

The killing was a public relations disaster for the tribe, which had been working with federal authorities to arrange a legal hunt, and Makah officials rushed to Washington, D.C., to assure the government they did not approve.

A lawyer for the tribe, John Arum, said the Makah would dismiss tribal charges if the men plead guilty in federal court as scheduled.

The Makah, who have been whalers for centuries, have sought to resume the hunts as part of their cultural heritage. But their treaty rights to hunt whales have been tangled in the courts for several years.

The federal government removed the gray whale from the endangered species list in 1994. Tribal members’ last legal whale hunt was in 1999.

Animal welfare activists sued, leading to a court order that the tribe must obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue hunting whales.

Fiander said he hoped the Makah would continue to work with U.S. authorities to ensure the tribe’s right to hunt whales.

“Litigation of these matters through the courts has become a risky business,” he said. “The United States Congress is the proper body to address tribal affairs.”