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Makah whale hunt decision now in the hands of single NOAA official

Makah Tribal Council Vice President Patrick Depoe
Parker Miles Blohm
Makah Tribal Council Vice President Patrick Depoe

It’s been nearly two months since a federal administrative law judge issued his recommendation on the Makah Tribe’s request to revive its whale hunt. Judge George J. Jordan broadly approved the request and recommended that a waiver be granted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. And comments on his opinion closed over the weekend.

Those will play a role in the next step: the decision on whether to grant the waiver. That is now in the hands of a single official at NOAA headquarters in Maryland.

A total of 355 public comments were submitted on the judge’s recommendation. They appear roughly split between arguments for and against the hunt.

Supporters want the Makah to be able to exercise their tribal treaty rights as a way of reviving and sustaining the traditional Makah culture. They say the limited waiver would have negligible effects on the health of the species. The tribe is requesting a hunt of up to three Eastern North Pacific gray whales on even years — and up to one on odd years — over a 10-year period.

The day Jordan issued his recommendation, Makah Tribal Council Vice President Patrick Depoe welcomed that opinion — because he said it acknowledges that the tribe isn’t asking to do anything that would harm the overall health of the whales.

“We've always considered ourselves, us and other tribes of the Northwest, as stewards of the land,” Depoe said. “It's of the utmost importance of us to see resources in perpetuity. And so when we're looking at these whales, we want to make sure the health of the whales is also a top priority. And I mean, that can be seen through history.”

The Makahs voluntarily halted their hunt when commercial hunting nearly wiped out gray whales in the 1930s. But it began pursuing a revival after gray whales recovered and were delisted in the mid 1990s. The gray whale hunt is included in its 1855 agreement with the U.S. government, the Treaty of Neah Bay.

Opponents say the whales are sentient beings that should not be hunted, especially in light of an ongoing unusual mortality event, possibly linked to climate change. Their comments — submitted to NOAA Fisheries — come from individuals as well as from national animal rights groups.

NOAA’s assistant administrator for fisheries, Janet Coit, will make the decision. If she grants the waiver, the Makahs can finally apply for a permit to conduct the hunt. But it’s unknown when that decision will come — or how much longer the tribe might have to wait.

Updated: November 18, 2021 at 9:40 AM PST
Clarified name of Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to