The Makah Indian tribe of Washington state is hoping to again legally hunt gray whales off the Pacific Coast.
The tribe has submitted a request to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to once again engage in a historic hunt for the large sea mammals that were once an integral part of the tribe’s subsistence and cultural heritage. The NOAA recently released a detailed Environmental Impact Statement wherein six possible options were proposed in consideration of the Makah’s request.
The two most salient options are either a denial of the request or a request approval that allows the Makah to harvest 24 whales in a six-year period (with an average of four but no more than five whales harvested in any given year). The other four options are offshoots of the allowed harvest, and deal primarily with issues of location and season dates. The 1,230-page statement also analyzes the potential impact of the hunt, if it is ultimately granted, on the environment and viability of the whale population.
In a press release, the NOAA’s associate deputy west coast regional administrator, Donna Darm, indicated that;
This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales. This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives we’ve developed, and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.
The NOAA estimates the eastern North Pacific gray whale population to be around 20,000 animals. Using a formula to estimate what the agency calls Potential Biological Removal, their calculations suggest that over 550 whales can be removed from the herd without seriously harming the long-term sustainability of the population.
Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. There are, however, two smaller subgroups of gray whales that some experts fear would suffer if any of their number were harvested by the hunters.
The Makah maintain that an 1885 treaty legally allows and protects their right to hunt whale, and in 1999 Makah hunters took to the sea and harvested a baleen whale, an act that triggered protests from animal rights groups and some environmentalists. A series of legal rulings and injunctions against whaling followed, although the Makah have remained steadfast in their desire to resume hunting. In 2007 the Makah ignored the court rulings and undertook an illegal whale hunt and harvested one animal.
For the Makah, preparing for a modern-day whale hunt involves intense training both physical and mental. Hunters who are chosen to participate in the hunt practice in two to three sessions of prolonged sea paddling each day in the weeks leading up to the hunt. They also, along with their families, engage in various spiritual ceremonies and behaviors to ensure a safe and successful hunt. Like many good hunters, whaling is serious business to the Makah that not only provides food for their community but also connects them to their history and heritage.
Timothy Greene, chairman of the Makah Tribal Council, said in an interview, “We are definitely happy that we have reached this point. It has been a very long process. [Whaling] is something that is strongly connected to our spiritual existence. We’re not going anywhere, and this is important for us and generations to come.”
The NOAA will be holding public meetings until June, where people can voice their opinions on Makah whale hunting, and the agency expects to make final ruling sometime in the coming year or two.