Makah Traditional Environmental Knowledge and Gray Whale Conservation

EPA Grant Number: U914970
Title: Makah Traditional Environmental Knowledge and Gray Whale Conservation
Investigators: Sepez, Jennifer
Institution: University of Washington - Seattle
EPA Project Officer: Packard, Benjamin H
Project Period: January 1, 1996 through August 16, 1999
Project Amount: $102,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (1996) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Biology/Life Sciences , Fellowship - Anthropology , Tribal Environmental Health Research


The objective of this research project is to examine native resource management issues and suggest viable conservation strategies for the future. My research focuses on the case of the gray whale, Eschrichthius robustus. This study will address this issue in the context of cross-cultural resource management and the conservation of culturally significant natural resources, and will focus on ethnobiological knowledge and cooperative resource management in the Makah/gray whale case.


Fieldwork for this research project will be conducted primarily in Neah Bay, the main settlement on the Makah Reservation. I will work in conjunction with the Makah Cultural and Research Center located there. Testing my hypotheses about Makah environmental knowledge will involve standard ethnobiological research procedures. My first hypothesis was that although direct knowledge of whaling appears to have been lost in Makah culture, direct knowledge of marine ecosystems, and therefore whales, has been maintained in some form. First, I will attempt to verify that there is no one living who has direct whaling experience. Then, I will trace the written, pictorial, and oral records of whaling practices through time. Finally, I will interview an age-stratified sample of residents about their understanding of the marine ecosystem, focusing particularly on marine mammals. Photography and video will be used in place of obtaining voucher specimens, because many of the key resources will be difficult to collect. I expect that the relationship between any residual direct experiences, the available recorded knowledge, and the range of current understanding will confirm the hypothesis to be true. The record of community ethnobiological knowledge created by testing this hypothesis will serve as the basis for assessing the extent to which local knowledge is valued in management structures.

My second hypothesis is that the greater the degree to which local knowledge can be incorporated into a contemporary management structure, the more successful that structure will be. Testing this hypothesis will require observation of Makah whaling practices and monitoring of the political, legal, and social structures that develop to manage allocation and procedure. It will be impossible to test whether or not the structures that develop are actually more or less successful than other structures, which would have been developed under different conditions. However, I will assess the degree to which traditional ecological knowledge has been incorporated or is valued in management practices. I also will assess how successful the management structure is in terms of its effectiveness at setting, allocating, and enforcing a quota that will conserve E. robustus populations at present levels or higher, and in terms of general social acceptance on the reservation. Both of these elements are critical. The presence of armed enforcement agents in a hostile community would indicate a very unsuccessful management structure, no matter how well the gray whale population is preserved. Also, peacefully cooperating whale hunters, agency regulators, and politicians will not be considered successful if they are peacefully allowing the whale population to decline again. Community satisfaction and prospects for long-term resource conservation will be the two main measures. I expect these to correlate with the degree to which traditional knowledge has been incorporated. The Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission will provide a comparative example. I also will use my knowledge of this and other cases to develop guidelines for state and federal agencies considering more cooperatively oriented management structures.

My results will indicate directions for U.S. policymakers who are interested in incorporating native needs and concerns into natural resource management, in the interests of greater protection for our shared resources.

Supplemental Keywords:

fellowship, gray whale conservation, gray whale, Eschrichthius robustus

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 1996
  • 1997
  • 1998
  • Final