SEATTLE, Oct 5 (Reuters) A federal grand jury indicted five Washington state American Indian men on three misdemeanor charges each for their involvement in an illegal hunt of a gray whale last month.
The five members of the Makah tribe, frustrated over lack of progress gaining federal approval to resume a tribal whale hunt, shot a 30-foot (9.1-metre) whale at least 16 times with a high-powered rifle before it died.
The Makah, a tribe of about 1,200 members in western Washington, has been waiting since 1999 to resume its gray whale hunt after a federal court ruled that the tribe needs to secure a waiver from the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Each misdemeanor is punishable by up to one year in jail and a 100,000 dollars fine.
''We sought out the harshest penalties we could find for the conduct. We believe this is egregious conduct,'' Assistant US Attorney Jim Oesterle said in a news conference in Seattle yesterday. According to the indictment, the group entered into a conspiracy to illegally hunt and kill a gray whale. The men are also charged with the unlawful taking of a marine mammal and unauthorized whaling.
The five men are also expected to face charges from their own tribe, who denounced the hunt and promised to prosecute the hunters to the fullest extent of the law.
One of the men charged in hunt, Wayne Johnson, a Makah whaling captain who was involved in the tribe's legal hunt in 1999, told the Seattle Times last month that he was not sorry and that he should have done this years ago.
The Makah is waiting on an environmental impact study from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A NOAA official said the illegal hunt could delay progress of the study.
The Makah argue that they secured the right to hunt whales and seals in an 1855 treaty with the US government when it reduced the size of its traditional lands.
At this year's International Whaling Commission meeting in Anchorage, the Makah tribe had its quota renewed to catch up to 20 gray whales over the next five years, even though permission to engage in a hunt was bogged down in the US court system.
The North Pacific Gray whale was taken off the endangered species list in 1994 and IWC scientists said earlier this year that a small hunt should not affect the population.
REUTERS SBA AS0450