Makah Tribe Contributing To Knowledge Of Gray Whales

NEAH BAY (June 17, 2005) – A watery highway for gray whales exists beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean off the Washington coast. Throughout the spring, thousands of whales are moving through, pausing to feed in some cases, but most remaining on course for Alaska to feed for the summer.

The Makah Tribe, as part of documenting what marine life passes through and inhabits their usual fishing grounds, is contributing to an international effort to understand the biology of gray whales.

“The tribe has an incredible amount of knowledge about many of the marine mammals in this area,” said Nathan Pamplin, marine mammal biologist for the tribe. “However, it is important to collect information using accepted research methods to more easily incorporate this data into management.”

Pamplin was hired by the tribe to compile scientific information about the marine mammals within the Makah’s usual fishing area and to conduct research needed by the tribe that wasn’t being addressed by other agencies.

We have treaty rights to protect,” said Russ Svec, Makah fisheries manager. “The treaty is a living, breathing document and our tribal fisheries are the heartbeat of that document.

Our marine resources are the physical connection to our past. It’s what helps keep our traditions alive. That is why a strong, comprehensive marine mammal program is so important to us and we were fortunate to hire someone who has the skills and intangible qualities we need to achieve these goals.”

Pamplin documents the whales with photographs and then cautiously approaches the whale from a research vessel to collect a small tissue sample. Genetic information, including sex of the whale, is determined from the skin portion of the sample. The presence of harmful, usually human-generated, contaminants is determined from the blubber portion of the sample. Many of the contaminants are attracted to and stored in fat.

“As part of a regional effort with many researchers along the Pacific coast, we’re documenting survival rates for gray whales, overall movements, abundance, genetics and the overall health of the population,” said Pamplin.


For more information, contact: Nathan Pamplin, marine mammal biologist, Makah Tribe, (360) 645-3176; Russ Svec, fishery manager, Makah Tribe, (360) 645-3160; Debbie Preston, coastal information officer, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, (360) 374-5501, [email protected]

Gray Whale Fast Facts

  • Gray whales historically existed in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. The Atlantic Ocean population was wiped out by the end of the 17th century.
  • Adult gray whales can be up to 50 feet long; females are larger than males.
  • The Eastern North Pacific stock feeds in the summer in the northern Bering and Chukchi seas and winters in Mexican and southern California waters where mature females have a calf every other year. The journey covers roughly 6,000 miles one way.
  • Gray whales are best seen off the Washington coast as they head north when they traverse closer to shore – from late March through June. They are seen further off-shore during the southern migration from early December through early February.