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Friday, February 2, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bitter words ring out at whaling hearing

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Whaling protesters exchanged high-seas confrontations for verbal skirmishes last night, as they sought to convince the government - and the public - that the Makah Tribe should never again kill a gray whale.

During a public hearing in a packed northeast Seattle auditorium, speaker after speaker accused the federal government - frequently in profanity-laced language - of everything from a cover-up to hypocrisy to incompetence in putting together a new environmental review of the tribe's controversial whale hunt.

But Makah members, backed by supporters and other tribes, insisted they be allowed to continue a tradition they followed for most of the last millennium - a tradition they contend is covered under treaty right and does not harm the whale population.

The hearing comes in the wake of last summer's suspension by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the Makah's authorization to hunt gray whales. In spring 2000, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the agency may have prejudiced an earlier review by first approving a hunt management plan. Since then, the agency has redrafted an "environmental assessment" that lays out four scenarios for any future whaling.

But last night's events - coming a full 18 months after tribal hunters in a dugout canoe harpooned a female gray off the Olympic Peninsula for the first time in 70 years - showed the feud over one of the Northwest's most recognized mammals remains as bitter as the salty sea air off Neah Bay.

"You suggest blowing the brains out of baby whales will increase whale-watching tours!" Sandy Abels, with a group called U.S. Citizens Against Whaling, told federal officials. "If this is (the federal government's) way of doing an unbiased assessment, you suck at it."

Outside, the Makahs found support from a new ally - hunters tired of animal-rights activists. They carried signs: "Let um hunt," "Whale meat is nature's health food," "Let's talk about it over a whale burger."

Inside, speakers interrupted one another with taunts and jeers. One loud woman was led away by a man with "Federal Agent" written across his jacket. The hallways and exits were lined with more than a dozen police officers.

Anti-whaling activists, who made up about half the 400 in attendance, argued that the Fisheries Service was letting the Makah lay ground for commercial whaling - a recurring charge Makah leaders repeatedly have denied. Activists insisted that the controversy was ripping apart rural Clallam County and Washington as a whole.

But Makah members were no less resolute. One called government proposals to restrict hunts as "cultural sterilization," and several Makah supporters dismissed whaling protests as racism.

"This is our right, and we intend to utilize it," said Gordon Smith, vice chairman of the Makah Tribe. "We will not be re-educated. We will not wake up in the morning and (have) our minds change."

The four scenarios are a hunting ban; a hunt without time and place limits; a hunt limited to the mammal's spring and fall migration between Alaska and Mexico; and one that allows the tribe to hunt in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Speakers were interested in only two of the options --no hunting or unrestricted hunting.

Since the first assessment, government scientists have concluded that the whale population hovers above 26,000, which may be the most their habitat can sustain. That suggests the killing of a handful of the mammals each year would not dramatically affect the population.

In addition, experts also conclude that whales in the so-called "resident" pods are not distinct from the larger migration further out to sea. That suggests there may be no biological reason to require tribal hunters to track only whales that are several miles from land.

The Makahs are participating in the process "primarily for PR" because of the treaty right, tribal attorney John Arum said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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