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Frustration mounts as Makah tribe waits for word on the whale hunt

In this Aug. 20, 1998, photo, Makah Indians paddle away from the rising sun as they head from Neah Bay toward open Pacific Ocean waters during a practice paddle ahead of its first whale hunt in 70 years.
In this Aug. 20, 1998, photo, Makah Indians paddle away from the rising sun as they head from Neah Bay toward open Pacific Ocean waters during a practice paddle ahead of its first whale hunt in 70 years.

Whale hunting is at the heart of Makah culture, going back for as long as anyone can remember. The small tribe has built its culture around Neah Bay, on the most northwesterly tip of Washington state, where migrating gray whales and humpbacks were long an abundant and readily available source of food and oil.

Makah leaders ensured that the right to hunt for whales was explicitly called out in its 19th-century treaty with the United States — the only Indigenous group on the Washington coast to do so.

In the 1920s, the Makah tribe voluntarily ceased whaling, after commercial hunts greatly reduced the population of the eastern North Pacific gray whales. Only when they were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1994, did the tribe seek to resume its traditional hunt — a pursuit they have stood by, despite decades of legal and bureaucratic challenges.

A final decision from the head of NOAA Fisheries was expected by the end of June. An administrative law judge recommended approval two years ago, following a five-day hearing in Seattle in 2019. But the agency has still not released its final environmental impact statement. It now says the process will likely take a couple more months.

Makah Chairman T.J. Greene told KNKX the wait is taking a toll.

Decades of frustration

“It's terribly frustrating, it's incredibly frustrating to be in this process and to see what a small tribe like Makah has to go through, to exercise its treaty right. Something that's been guaranteed since 1855. And we've been in this administrative process for a good 20 years,” Greene said.

In 1999, the tribe was authorized to resume its hunt. They took one gray whale off the Washington coast before lawsuits and violent protests forced them to stop.

Greene said in the decades since 1999, the tribe has continued to nurture the whaling culture and customs as best they can, without actually going on a hunt. Stranded and entangled whales are sometimes brought to Makah beaches for traditional processing, as recently as in 2018 and 2020.

Training for the hunt will involve intense physical and spiritual practice. Greene said several families stand ready with young men who want to be part of the elite crew – and talks have slowly started on how to reconvene a Makah whaling commission.

People are missing that part of their culture, of their teachings of the things that we put into that,” Green said, noting that the latest delay and uncertainty about the hunt “doesn't help in terms of generating that energy for people to work and begin those preparations that have to be done.”

Gray whale numbers declining

Greene said one factor the tribe suspects might be part of the delay on the final environmental impact statement is the latest count of gray whales that migrate along the West Coast. An unusual mortality event that started in 2019has caused large numbers of them to wash ashore, emaciated.

NOAA Fisheries is closely tracking that die-off and their researchers still say it remains within a normal range of cyclical fluctuations in the population. But the latest count, published June 27, puts their number at approximately 14,500. That’s down by almost 50% in six years.

Greene said their request to hunt would not have a material effect on the population; it’s designed to be low impact.

“But with, with the timing of the release of that new information regarding the population of the Eastern North Pacific gray whale, it certainly has us concerned,” Greene said.

“It’s something we're going to pay attention to and work to stay on top of.”

If approved, their latest permit would allow the harvest of no more than three whales per year over a 10-year period.

Hunt still possible in spring 2024

NOAA Fisheries said its final environmental impact statement on the Makah request is expected to be published this summer. That will be followed by a mandatory “wait period” (generally at least 30 days) before a final decision can be made on the proposed action.

If approved this summer, the Makah tribe could get their canoes and harpoons out on the water as soon as next spring.

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