A Multidisciplinary Treasure Hunt: Learning about Indigenous Whaling in Oregon

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

At this year’s virtual State of the Coast conference, I enjoyed tuning into a range of great talks, including one by Zach Penney from the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. In his presentation, “More Than a Tradition: Treaty rights and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission,” Penney described a tribal “covenant with resources,” and noted the success of this approach — “You don’t live in a place for 15,000 years by messing it up.”

Indigenous management of resources in the Pacific Northwest dates back thousands of years. From oak savannahs to fisheries to fires, local tribes managed diverse natural systems long before colonial settlement of the area that is now Oregon. We know comparatively little, however, about how Indigenous groups in Oregon interacted with whale populations before the changes brought by colonialism and commercial whaling.

Makah hunters in Washington bring a harvested whale into Neah Bay (Asahel Curtis/Washington State Historical Society).

I’m curious about how this missing knowledge could inform our understanding of the coastal Oregon ecosystems in which many GEMM Lab projects take place. My graduate research will be part of the effort to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Penney’s talk, ongoing conversations about decolonizing science, and my own concerns about becoming the scientist that I want to be, have all led me to ask a new set of questions: What did humans know in the past about whale distributions along the Oregon coast? What lost knowledge can be reclaimed from history?

As I started reading about historical Indigenous whale use in Oregon, I was struck by how little we know today, and how this learning process became a multidisciplinary treasure hunt. Clues as to how Indigenous groups interacted with whales along the Oregon coast lie in oral histories, myths, journals, and archaeological artifacts. 

Much of what I read hinged on the question: did Indigenous tribes in Oregon historically hunt whales? Many signs point to yes, but it’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer conclusively. Marine systems and animals, including seals and whales, remain an important part of cultures in the Pacific Northwest today – but historically, documentation of hunting whales in Oregon has been limited. Whale bones have been found in coastal middens, and written accounts describe opportunistic harvests of beached whales. However, people have long believed that only a few North American tribes outside of the Arctic regularly hunted whales. 

But in 2007, archaeologists Robert Losey and Dongya Yang found an artifact that started to shift this narrative. While studying a collection of tools housed at the Smithsonian Institution, they discovered the tip of a harpoon lodged in a whale flipper bone. This artifact came from the Partee site, which was inhabited around AD 300-1150 and is located near present-day Seaside, Oregon.

A gray whale ulna with cut marks found at the Partee site (Wellman, et al. 2017).

Through DNA testing, Losey and Yang determined that the harpoon was made of elk bone, and that the elk was not only harvested locally, but also used locally. This new piece of evidence suggested that whaling did in fact take place at the Partee site, likely by the Tillamook or Clatsop tribes that utilized this area.

Several years later, this discovery inspired Smithsonian Museum of Natural History archaeologist Torben Rick and University of Oregon PhD student Hannah Wellman to comb through the rest of the animal remains in the Smithsonian’s collection from northwest Oregon. Rick and Wellman scrutinized 187 whale bones for signs of hunting or processing, and found that about a quarter of the marks they inspected could have come from either hunting or the opportunistic harvest of stranded whales. They examined tools from the midden as well, and found that they were more suited to hunting animals, like seals and sea lions, or fishing. 

However, Wellman and Rick also used DNA testing to identify which whale species were represented in the midden – and the DNA analyses suggested a different story. Genetic results revealed that the majority of whale bones in the midden came from gray whales, a third from humpback whales, and a few from orca and minke. Modern gray whale stranding events are not uncommon, and so it follows logically that these bones could have simply come from people harvesting beached whales. However, humpback strandings are rare – suggesting that such a large proportion of humpback bones in the midden is likely evidence of people actively hunting humpback whales.

Percentage of whale species identified at the Partee site and percentage of species in the modern stranding record for the Oregon Coast (Wellman, et al. 2017).

These results shed new light on whale harvesting practices at the Partee Site, and, like so much research, they suggest a new set of questions. What does the fact that there were orca, minke, gray, and humpback whales off the Oregon coast 900 years ago tell us about the history of this ecosystem? Could artifacts that have not yet been found provide more conclusive evidence of hunting? What would it mean if these artifacts are found one day, or if they are never found?

As this fascinating research continues, I hope that new discoveries will continue to deepen our understanding of historic Indigenous whaling practices in Oregon – and that this information can find a place in contemporary conversations. Indigenous whaling rights are both a contemporary and contentious issue in the Pacific Northwest, and the way that humans learn about the past has much to do with how we shape the present. 

What we learn about the past can also change how we understand this ecosystem today, and provide new context as we try to understand the impacts of climate change on whale populations in Oregon. I’m interested in how learning more about historical Indigenous whaling practices could provide more information about whale population baselines, ideas for management strategies, and a new lens on the importance of whales in the Pacific Northwest. Even if we can’t fully reclaim lost knowledge from history, maybe we can still read enough clues to help us see both the past and present more fully.

Sources:

Braun, Ashley. “New Research Offers a Wider View on Indigenous North American Whaling.” Hakai Magazine, November 2016, www.hakaimagazine.com/news/new-research-offers-wider-view-indigenous-north-american-whaling/. 

Eligon, John. “A Native Tribe Wants to Resume Whaling. Whale Defenders Are Divided.” New York Times, November 2019. 

Hannah P. Wellman, Torben C. Rick, Antonia T. Rodrigues & Dongya Y. Yang (2017) Evaluating Ancient Whale Exploitation on the Northern Oregon Coast Through Ancient DNA and Zooarchaeological Analysis, The Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology, 12:2, 255-275, DOI: 10.1080/15564894.2016.1172382

Losey, R., & Yang, D. (2007). Opportunistic Whale Hunting on the Southern Northwest Coast: Ancient DNA, Artifact, and Ethnographic Evidence. American Antiquity, 72(4), 657-676. doi:10.2307/25470439

Sanchez, Gabriel (2014). Conference paper: Cetacean Hunting at the Par-Tee site (35CLT20)?: Ethnographic, Artifact and Blood Residue Analysis Investigation.

The Room Where it Happens

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As I solidified my grad school plans last spring, one of the things that made me most excited to join the GEMM Lab was the direct applicability of its research to management and conservation practices. Seeing research directly plugged into current problems facing society is always inspirational to me. My graduate research will be part of the GEMM Lab’s project to identify co-occurrence between whales and fishing effort in Oregon, with the goal of helping to reduce whale entanglement risk. Recently, watching the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) Commission in action gave me a fascinating, direct look at how the management sausage gets made.

Two humpback whales surface together off the coast of Oregon. Photo taken under NOAA/NMFS research permit #21678.

At the September Commission meeting, ODFW Marine Resources Program Manager Caren Braby presented proposed rule changes in the management of the Oregon dungeness crab fleet. As part of a coordinated effort with Washington and California, the main goal of these changes is to reduce the risk of whale entanglements, which have increased sharply in US West Coast waters since 2014. 

With the aim of maximizing the benefit to whales while minimizing change to the fishery, Braby and her staff developed a recommendation for a shift in summer fishing effort, when whales are most abundant in Oregon waters. Based on diverse considerations — including the distributions of humpback whales off Oregon and season fishery economics — she outlined options along what she termed a “spectrum of reduced risk,” which included possible shifts in the fishing season, spatial extent, and number of pots deployed.

Although the GEMM Lab project to provide a robust understanding of whale distribution in Oregon waters is not yet complete, the data collected to-date has already significantly refined knowledge of whale distributions off the coast — and it directly informed the proposed monthly depth limitations for fishing effort. It is never possible to have perfect knowledge of an ecosystem, and resource managers must navigate this inherent complexity as they make decisions. As the GEMM Lab collects and analyzes more data on the distribution of whales and their prey, our ability to inform management decisions can become even more precise and effective.

Braby proposed that the fleet reduce the number of crab pots deployed by 20% and prohibit fishing at depths greater than 30 fathoms, starting May 1, for the next three seasons. The goal of this recommendation is to effectively separate the bulk of fishing effort from the deep waters where humpback whales forage, when they visit their feeding grounds off the coast of Oregon during the summer.

ODFW Marine Resources Program Manager Caren Braby outlined management options along a “spectrum of reduced risk.” Source: ODFW

Following Braby’s presentation, a public comment period allowed stakeholders to offer their own opinions and requests for the Commission to consider. Fisherman, lawyers, and members of conservation nonprofits each provided succinct three-minute statements, offering a wide range of opinions and amendments to the proposed rule changes.

This comment period highlighted how truly multifaceted this decision-making process is, as well as the huge number of livelihoods, economic impacts, and types of data that must be considered. It also raised essential questions — how do you make regulations that protect whales without favoring one group of stakeholders over another? How can you balance multiple levels of law with the needs of local communities?

Even during heated moments of this meeting, the tone of the dialog impressed me. This topic is inevitably a contentious and emotional issue. Yet even people with opposing viewpoints maintained focus on their common goals and common ground, and frequently reiterated their desire to work together.

After more than six hours of presentations, comments, and deliberation, the Commission voted on the proposed rule changes. They decided to adopt somewhat more liberal rule changes than Braby had proposed — a 20% reduction in crab pots and a prohibition on fishing at depths greater than 40 fathoms, starting May 1. After three years, the Commission will evaluate the efficacy of these new policies, and plan to refine or change the rules based on the best available data. 

Witnessing this decision-making process gave me a new perspective on the questions and context my research will fit into, and this understanding will help me become a better collaborator. Watching the Commission in action also underscored the difficult position managers are often put in. They must make decisions based on incomplete knowledge that will inevitably impact people’s lives — but they also need to protect the species and biodiversity, that also have an innate right to exist in natural ecosystems. Seeing the intricacies of this balancing act made me glad that I get to be part of research that can inform important management decisions in Oregon.

ODFW Marine Resources Program Manager Caren Braby’s presentation begins around an hour and 52 minutes into the video, and it is followed by a question and answer session and public testimony.

Cascadia 2020: Exploring Oregon via Zoom

By Rachel Kaplan, PhD student, OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

As a newly-minted PhD student, starting graduate school has so far been everything I dreamt — and a bit more. I expected the excitement of meeting my cohort and professors, and starting classes. The apocalyptic drive to campus through a fiery sky as fires burned across Oregon, and the week after spent solely indoors, I did not.

When conditions allow, being in the field is one of my favorite parts of the scientific process!

As I’ve settled into Corvallis, my program, and navigating the roadblocks 2020 keeps throwing our way, I have been so grateful for the warm (virtual) welcome by my lab groups, professors, and fellow students. One of the most impressive displays of flexibility and adaptability so far is the ever-evolving field course I am currently taking.

Called “Cascadia,” this course provides an introduction to the range of geological, physical, ecological, and biogeochemical topics that exist within the Pacific Northwest, and explores the linkages between these areas. The course’s goal is to introduce incoming CEOAS (College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences) students to the surrounding landscape, and to the ways that human systems interact with that landscape. 

The professors teaching Cascadia — Drs. Frederick Colwell, Emily Shroyer, and George Waldbusser — have done an amazing job adapting the course to unprecedented circumstances. Over the summer, safety measures due to the pandemic required them to move the course to a largely online format, with only three planned day trips (typically the course is a full ten-day road trip around the state). Over the last week, the fires raging around Oregon have forced them to adapt the course repeatedly in real time, postponing field trips based on air quality forecasts and site closures.

During a typical year in the Cascadia course, the incoming students learn while exploring, camping, and hiking their way around a number of sites around Oregon. This year, our classmates are scattered around the country and our explorations have taken place in a Zoom room — but that hasn’t stopped the experience from being great.

Several professors shared their expertise with us through a series of talks that covered the ecology and history of the Willamette River, Pacific Northwest volcanoes, tsunami safety and preparation, and even wildfire ecology. In addition to talks by subject matter experts, each student delved into and presented on a topic of their choice, allowing us to learn from one another about everything from edible plants, to Oregon craft beers, to human movements throughout the Willamette River valley. We also enjoyed gorgeous pictures of Oregon’s mountains, coast, and desert, and received recommendations for trips and hikes that everyone is excited to explore.

As of the time of writing this blog, I’m excited to say that things may look a little different tomorrow — rain and improved air quality are in the forecast, and the Cascadia crew is planning to venture out to the coast for our first field trip! We’ll be learning on-site about the Oregon Coast Range and coastal dynamics, climate, and processes. This will actually be my first time on the Oregon coast, but definitely not my last.

For my PhD research, I will work with Dr. Leigh Torres and Dr. Kim Bernard (CEOAS) to understand how ocean conditions and prey distribution shape where whales are found in Oregon waters. Whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear have been on the rise since 2014, and we will collaborate with the Oregon Whale Entanglement Working group to look for solutions to this problem. 

A big part of my excitement about this research project lies in the way it intersects natural and human systems, just as we have been exploring through the Cascadia course. I am interested in how marine mammal distribution and behavior intersect with human systems — and how understanding these interactions can inform management and conservation efforts. I am thrilled to be a new member of the GEMM Lab, and to be starting (remote) classes and this research. For now, I’m wishing everyone good air quality and a safe fall!

Update: The Cascadia class did make it the coast! We were even lucky enough to see gray whales here at Depoe Bay.