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Washington's Makah Tribe could once again harpoon whales as U.S. waives conservation law


The United States granted the Makah Indian Tribe in Washington state a long-sought waiver Thursday that helps clear the way for its first sanctioned whale hunts since 1999 and sets the stage for renewed clashes with animal rights activists.

The Makah, a tribe of 1,500 people on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, is the only Native American tribe with a treaty that specifically mentions a right to hunt whales. But it has faced more than two decades of court challenges, bureaucratic hearings and scientific review as it seeks to resume hunting for gray whales.

The decision by NOAA Fisheries grants a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which otherwise forbids harming marine mammals. It allows the tribe to hunt up to 25 Eastern North Pacific gray whales over 10 years, with a limit of two to three per year. There are roughly 20,000 whales in that population.

The tribe celebrated the decision but said it took far too long.

“Whaling remains central to the identity, culture, subsistence, and spirituality of the Makah people, and we regard the Gray Whale as sacred," Makah Tribal Council Chairman Timothy J. Greene Sr. said in a written statement. "In the time since our last successful hunt in 1999, we have lost many elders who held the knowledge of our whaling customs, and another entire generation of Makahs has grown up without the ability to exercise our Treaty right or experience the connections and benefits of whaling that our ancestors secured for us.”

The hunts will be timed in an effort to avoid harming endangered Western North Pacific gray whales that sometimes visit the area — about 200 to 300 remain — as well as a group of about 200 gray whales that generally spend summer and fall feeding along the Northwest coast.

Nevertheless, some hurdles remain. The tribe must enter into a cooperative agreement with the agency under the Whaling Convention Act, and it must obtain a permit to hunt, a process that involves a monthlong public comment period.

Animal rights advocates, who have long opposed whaling, could also challenge NOAA's decision in court. DJ Schubert, a senior wildlife biologist with the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, said his organization would object to the issuance of the hunt permit but likely wait until final approvals are given before deciding whether to sue.

He noted that while the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population appears healthy now, it has fluctuated wildly in recent years, and no one knows how the whales will fare as climate change continues to affect the Arctic. Scientists estimate that as much as 40% of the population died off from 2018 to last year before it began to recover.

“We completely respect the tribe's cultural practices and traditions,” Schubert said. “We just fundamentally disagree that they need to hunt whales to continue those traditions. We hope that as this decision-making process plays out, perhaps the Makah Tribe and the government could reconsider the need to hunt whales and advocate for protection instead of persecution.”

Archeological evidence shows that Makah hunters in cedar canoes killed whales for sustenance from time immemorial, a practice that ceased only in the early 20th century after commercial whaling vessels depleted the population.

By 1994, the Eastern Pacific gray whale population had rebounded, and they were removed from the endangered species list. Seeing an opportunity to reclaim its heritage, the tribe announced plans to hunt again.

The Makah trained for months in the ancient ways of whaling and received the blessing of federal officials and the International Whaling Commission. They took to the water in 1998 but didn’t succeed until the next year, when they harpooned a gray whale from a hand-carved cedar canoe. A tribal member in a motorized support boat killed it with a high-powered rifle to minimize its suffering.

It was the tribe's first successful hunt in 70 years.

The hunts drew protests from animal rights activists, who sometimes threw smoke bombs at the whalers and sprayed fire extinguishers into their faces. Others veered motorboats between the whales and the tribal canoes to interfere with the hunt. Authorities seized several vessels and made arrests.

After animal rights groups sued, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned federal approval of the tribe’s whaling plans. The court found that the tribe needed to obtain a waiver under the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Eleven Alaska Native communities in the Arctic have such a waiver for subsistence hunts, allowing them to kill bowhead whales — even though bowheads are listed as endangered.

The Makah Tribe applied for a waiver in 2005. The process repeatedly stalled as new scientific information about the whales and the health of their population was uncovered.

Some of the Makah whalers became so frustrated with the delays that they went on a rogue hunt in 2007, killing a gray whale that got away from them and sank. They were convicted in federal court. Top Stories

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