NEAH BAY, Wash. – A California gray whale that was harpooned and shot with a machine gun off the western tip of Washington state has died, officials said.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Kelly Parker said five people believed to be members of the Makah Tribe shot and harpooned the whale Saturday morning.
Petty Officer Shawn Eggert said the whale disappeared beneath the surface in the evening, dragging buoys that had been attached to the harpoon, and did not resurface. A biologist working for the Makah Indian tribe declared it dead, Eggert said.
Tribe members were being held by the Coast Guard but had not been charged, said Mark Oswell, a spokesman for the law enforcement arm of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
A preliminary report said the whale was shot with a .50-caliber machine gun, Oswell said.
Coast Guard officials created a 1,000-yard safety zone around the injured whale, which was shot about a mile east of Neah Bay in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The whale had begun heading to sea Saturday afternoon, Oswell said.
Although the tribe has subsistence fishing rights to kill whales, Oswell said preliminary information indicates the whale may have been shot illegally.
"We allow native hunts for cultural purposes. However, this does not appear to be of that nature so far," he said.
The Makah Tribe has more than 1,000 members and is based in Neah Bay.
A call to tribal officials was not immediately returned on Saturday. Tribal Chairman Ben Johnson told The Seattle Times that the tribe has been seeking an exemption from the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act so that it could take up to five gray whales per year. However, Johnson said the tribe had not yet secured that exemption for a new hunt.