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Makah whale hunt approval recommended by federal official

In this May 17, 1999, file photo, two Makah whalers stand atop a dead gray whale, moments after helping tow it to shore in the harbor at Neah Bay, Wash. Earlier in the day, Makah Indians took it in their first hunt since opting out 70 years earlier.
Elaine Thompson
/
The Associated Press file
In this May 17, 1999, photo, two Makah whalers stand atop a dead gray whale, moments after helping tow it to shore in the harbor at Neah Bay, Wash. Earlier in the day, Makah Indians took it in their first hunt since opting out 70 years earlier.

A federal official has issued his recommendation regarding the Makah whale hunt. Judge George G. Jordan, administrative law judge with the U.S. Coast Guard, says he recommends granting the waiver the tribe has requested under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

This is a much-awaited decision after a weeklong public hearing that packed a courtroom in Seattle nearly two years ago. The judge’s response comes much later than expected, slowed by complications from the COVID pandemic.

It does not mean the tribe has approval to resume the hunt; there are still several administrative steps that are needed, including approval by the head of NOAA Fisheries, Janet Coit, and permitting that could be more complex than anticipated, based on the ruling. It is nonetheless a significant step forward.

In 1999, the Makahs briefly revived their hunt, after gray whales were de-listed as an endangered species in 1994. The whales had rebounded despite the ravages of the hunting era.

That hunt 22 years ago was hugely controversial. There were lawsuits and even death threats about it — so the tribe only took one whale at that time. But they have not given up on the push to revive a tradition they say is at the heart of their culture and identity as a people.

The Makahs’ main argument stems from their tribal treaty rights. The whale hunt is mentioned in the tribe’s treaty with the federal government, signed in 1855. Makahs say the whale hunt is central to the health of their people, based on the traditional nutrition that whale meat and blubber provide, as well as the physical rigor of preparing to paddle canoes fast enough.

Their application is for a limited hunt that would allow the take of roughly 20 gray whales over five years, limited to the outer coast. Staff at NOAA Fisheries have supported the request, saying that the once-endangered population would not be put at risk by the proposal.

The main opponents of the hunt are animal rights groups, including some locals who have gotten to know some of the individual gray whales that travel along the west coast, as well as some who reside here most of the year. The groups don’t want to see the whales killed by what they feel is an unnecessary hunt. And they’re concerned about recent mass die-offs that some say are linked to global climate change and warming in the Arctic, where the whales feed in winter.

Several steps remain before a hunt could resume. Under the permit discussed in the hearing two years ago, even-year hunts would take place in spring and odd-years in fall. But, in his decision, Judge Jordan expresses some concern about even years and mentions a possibility for authorities to grant approval for odd years only.

If that is the case, fall of 2023 would be the soonest the Makahs could take to the water in their traditional canoes with harpoons and rifles, to capture their first great gray whale in more than two decades.

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