Harpooning conspiracies

Puncturing conspiracy theories about the Makahs.

WHAT DRIVES DOZENS of anti-whaling protesters to spend week after week bobbing in the drizzly winds off Neah Bay, taunting and begging the Makahs to give up their plans to kill a whale? What makes them come on by turns like marauding pirates and nagging missionaries, inspires them to endure slings and pebbles, and even to sacrifice one of their Zodiac boats (as they did during the improbable Battle of Neah Bay two Sundays back)? Why would they jeopardize the traditional alliance between tribes and environmentalists for the sake of a whale, even if that whale happens to be named “Buddy”?

Visceral revulsion isn’t the only driver. The anti-Makah-whaling crusade rests on much broader and, if true, more compelling fears: that this limited “subsistence” gray-whale hunt is but the first step toward a bigger commercial take of many marine species, and that the tribe is just a “pawn” or “stalking horse” (as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society puts it) for a foreign—especially Japanese—drive to revive commercial whaling worldwide.

Three weeks ago, Sea Shepherd got the biggest play so far for this theory when it announced it had, through a Freedom of Information Act request to the National Marine Fisheries Service, obtained documents that proved “beyond dispute” that “the Makahs’ proposed ‘cultural’ whale hunt [is really] the wedge to open up a future large-scale factory killing enterprise, and the Makahs’ partners in the federal government knew it.” TV news ran with the revelations. Local print reporters, who are better informed, more skeptical of Sea Shepherd’s claims, or more sympathetic to the Makah whalers (pick one of the above, or all three), ignored them. The anti-whaling protesters circling the bay were further outraged. A week later, on November 1, they staged their most aggressive protest yet, and a crowd of tribespeople reacted violently.

In fact, there is both more and less than meets the eye to these claims of insidious commercial-whaling ambitions and Japanese connections behind the Makah whale hunt. National Marine Fisheries officials say the documents Sea Shepherd claimed to have uncovered have been sitting in the public file all along. Most of them merely confirm what’s long been known: that in spring 1995, tribal fisheries officials (entrepreneurial types who aren’t notably devoted to traditional cultural practices) approached NMFS about launching a commercial whale fishery—and the feds told them US law forbids the sale and export of whale meat. Around the same time, recalls Jay Hastings, the Seattle-based counsel for the Japanese Fisheries Council, “they asked me about commercial sale. I said, ‘Don’t even think about selling whale meat.'”

One document, however, does sound like a bombshell. This is an April 27 memo from Robert Brownell of NMFS’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, summarizing a “discussion of treaty rights” before a NMFS scientific panel. “The Makah intend to harvest gray whales (starting in 1995), harbor seals (5 already taken), California sea lions, minke whales, small cetaceans such as harbor porpoise and Dall’s porpoise, and, potentially in the future, sea otters,” Brownell reported. “The Makah are planning to operate a processing plant so as to sell to markets outside the US. The Makah have started discussions with Japan and Norway about selling their whale products to both countries. The plant could be used to process the catches of other tribes as well.”

What more could opponents want? The memo recapitulates exactly the charges they’ve been making, and more. Open and shut.

THERE ARE JUST TWO PROBLEMS with this apparently damning declaration. First, it’s not from the Makahs themselves. Brownell was reporting on a presentation by Terry Wright, a non-Makah (indeed, non-Indian) staff biologist for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission—who has since been absent from the Makah whaling debate. “This [plan] is Terry Wright’s pipe dream,” says the Makahs’ attorney, John Arum, who inquired on their behalf about the possibility of a commercial hunt in 1995. “No one here has talked to him. He’s very pro-killing marine mammals. He wants the tribes to kill them.” Indeed, in late 1995, when Wright chaired a task force on what to do with the steelhead-chomping sea lions at the Ballard Locks, he was its leading advocate for killing them.

Wright himself concedes that the views outlined in the notorious memo weren’t the Makahs’—and insists they weren’t his either. Rather, he says, NMFS’s Brownell misunderstood his verbal report; what he actually said was: First, the Makahs “have treaty rights that would allow them to harvest any other marine mammals.” Second, the plant they wanted to build would have been for processing harbor seals and California sea lions; this fizzled when the market for seal meat didn’t materialize. (After eating it for a week in Alaska, I can see why.) And finally, Wright says, “The Makah did not start the discussions with Norway and Japan. Norway and Japan approached the Makah.”

All this jibes with what’s been reported elsewhere, and with the 1855 treaty guaranteeing the Makahs’ fishing and whaling rights. Brownell was out of the country, and so couldn’t say where the misunderstanding actually arose. But a memo written the next day (April 28, 1995) by Mike Tillman, the director of NMFS’s La Jolla science center, sheds some light. Tillman reported that “Terry Wright’s views may not be those of the tribe,” according to NMFS officials in Seattle who’d actually been meeting with the Makahs, and that the Makahs would soon outline their actual whaling intentions.

The tribe promptly proposed the sort of “interim” subsistence/cultural hunt it’s now attempting, with federal aid and oversight. “At the time, they were very naïve about what was possible and what was not,” Tillman now recalls. Since then, however, the tribe has disavowed any intent of getting into the whale-meat business, though many members complain that under their treaty, they should be able resume their traditional commercial hunt.

ANOTHER APPARENT Japanese-Makah whaling connection also sounds damning at first glance: The same year the Makahs sought IWC permission to take gray whales, they signed a major fishery contract in a joint venture with a major Japanese seafood firm with a long history of legal and, allegedly, illegal whaling. That sounds like just the mechanism for the “laundering” of Japanese money to indigenous whalers alleged by Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd. Again, however, the closer you look, the more coincidental the connection looks.

In 1996, the Makahs launched a 15,000-ton fishery for Pacific whiting, an abundant surimi source, and contracted to sell it to Seattle-based Supreme Alaska Seafoods. Makah tribal resources manager Dave Sones, who was fisheries manager then, recounts that “we looked at a couple different operations” to process the $3 million whiting catch. “There’s not too many of those big factory ships left out there. We got the best references on these guys. They do real good by us.” And no, Sones adds, neither they nor any other Japanese interests have prodded the tribe to go whaling.

Supreme Alaska is partly owned by the Japanese firm Maruha, formerly called Taiyo and reportedly the world’s largest seafood company. Dun & Bradstreet lists “Maruya” [sic] as Supreme Alaska’s majority owner, and William Phillips, former chief of staff to Alaska’s Sen. Ted Stevens, as a minority owner. James Salisbury, its founder and president, says Dun is wrong: Maruha has only a “minority” share. Supreme Alaska’s vice president, Shigeru Nakamura, confirms he used to work for Maruha/Taiyo.

In 1996, Supreme Alaska acquired the Japanese-built factory trawler MV Excellence, and a dash of controversy, from Maruha. Sen. Stevens—otherwise the bane of the Seattle trawler fleet—pushed through a bill exempting the Excellence from a new law banning such transfers of foreign fishing ships. The Sea-World Fish Information Service, a pro-trawler Web newsletter that seems to relish embarrassing adversary Stevens, calls this move a “loophole in the law” and alleges that Supreme Alaska seems to be “both very much in Maruha’s hands and . . . controlled from Tokyo.”

“It certainly wasn’t a loophole in the law. It was a law written specifically to bring the Excellence in,” says Salisbury, adding, “We’re an independent company, an American company [with] no connection to whaling.”

BUT TO ANTI-WHALING ACTIVISTS, Maruha is the evil empire. Greenpeace International reports that Maruha has a one-third share in the Japanese whaling fleet. The Animal Welfare Institute, which has tracked whaling trends since 1971, reports that Taiyo “illegally imported” thousands of Bryde’s whales caught by Taiwan’s Ming Tai Frozen Seafood Corp. into Japan in the l970s and ’80s, and that this network may continue.

In 1993, Russian officials seized some 232 tons of frozen whale meat that was supposedly predated in a Vladivostok warehouse. Animal Welfare Institute investigators reported it had actually been smuggled from Taiwan by a former Ming Tai whaling manager, who said a Taiyo representative had paid him for it. “Taiyo is really bad news,’ says Kathleen O’Connell, US rep for the Britain-based Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society. “If you’ve found a direct tie between Taiyo and the Makahs, that’s really appalling.”

Or is it? Maruha/Taiyo is in fact no longer a whaling, or for the most part even a fishing, company. It stopped whaling in the 1980s, shortly before the worldwide moratorium was adopted, and divested most of its fishing fleet in the 1990s. Maruha does, however, continue to distribute some of the catch from Japan’s “scientific” take of 400-plus minke whales a year, through its vast wholesale network. Hastings describes this as a favor to the Japanese government; Jerry Leape, a New York­based whaling specialist with Greenpeace, concurs: “The government encouraged them with promises they’d get profits someday.

“This is really small potatoes for them,” adds Leape. Even before Maruha quit whaling, he notes, “it was not a significant blip on their account sheet.”

Considering that, considering the big money in surimi (for both parties), and considering all the legal, PR, and possibly eco-terrorist peril they might incur, it seems implausible that Maruha and the Makahs would undertake some shadowy whale deal.

But that won’t stop the conspiracy theories from flying (and, just maybe, panning out) each time Japanese connections appear at Neah Bay. And dealing in fisheries, as the Makahs do, means dealing with Japan. But what to make of this connection? Jim Salisbury notes that from 1988 to 1990, before starting Supreme Alaska, he was the attaché for oceans and fisheries at the US Embassy in Tokyo. “I was representing the United States’ interest against whaling!”

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