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After nearly 25 years, federal officials approve a limited Makah whale hunt  

Makah Indians paddle their 32-foot canoe "Hummingbird" into open Pacific Ocean waters during a practice on Aug. 20, 1998 in Neah Bay, Wash. At left is Dwight Tevuk and right is Eric Johnson. The Makah tribe is poised to go on its first whale hunt in 25 years this fall, hoping to take at least one gray whale as the animals migrate south from the Aleutian chain to warmer southern waters. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Elaine Thompson
Makah Indians paddle their 32-foot canoe "Hummingbird" into open Pacific Ocean waters during a practice on Aug. 20, 1998 in Neah Bay, Wash. After a successful hunt in 1999, the first one in 70 years, protests and lawsuits shut down the newly revived tradition. Now, with a Marine Mammal Protection Act waiver, the tribe will be authorized to hunt and kill up to three eastern North Pacific gray whales per year.

The long wait is over. A federal official has given the green light for members of the Makah tribe to resume exercising their treaty right to whaling, based on a request first made in 2005. Their last hunt took place in 1999.

With a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act in hand, the tribe will be authorized to hunt and kill up to three eastern North Pacific gray whales per year over the next decade.

The Tribe and officials from NOAA Fisheries must enter into a cooperative agreement honoring internationally established quotas under the Whaling Convention Act.

Makah officials must first secure a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service. And the Makah whaling crews need time to prepare for a traditional hunt from a cedar canoe. Tribal Chairman TJ Greene told KNKX he thinks a hunt next spring is probably realistic.

Joy and relief

Greene said the Makah tribal council got the news on a conference call and the response was cries of joy and an "Amen!" from one of his colleagues.

"As difficult as it's been, as frustrating as it’s been, this is an important moment," Greene said Thursday.

"It helps define a pathway, a clear pathway, for us to reconnect and to exercise a treaty right that's been taken away from us, unduly. And we're excited. I think it shows how important whaling is to us to go through a 20 year administrative process that has all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles to work through. And, and not give up."

Janine Ledford, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center in Neah Bay, recalled the feeling she had as a young woman witnessing the whale hunt in 1999. The 25 years that have passed since then have amplified that feeling.

Janine Ledford stands next to two hunting canoes with the skeleton of a whale hanging above.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Janine Ledford, executive director at the Makah Cultural and Research Center, stands next to hunting canoes and below the skeleton of a gray whale that the tribe hunted in 1999.

“It's actually pretty hard to put to words, but it's monumental, it's really incredible,” Ledford said in anticipation of the decision.

“When you're resuming something that is so central and so important – that our ancestors never let us forget about.”

She said there is also sadness and frustration about the many people who died waiting to see the revival of the whale hunt. But there are equal numbers of young people who have been waiting and have set their sights on supporting it in some way.

“Everybody here is involved in one way or another. We've never lost sight of the importance of whales and whale hunting,” Ledford said. “You know, we weren't hunting for roughly 80 years, but that didn't mean that our community – that our tribe, you know – forgot how important whales are to us.”

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.

The hunt is to be conducted using traditional methods, such as hand-carved canoes and harpoons. As in 1999, Makah hunters will also use modern equipment, including motorized chase-boats and a high-powered rifle to quickly kill the whale after it is struck.

FILE - In this May 17, 1999 file photo, two Makah Indian whalers stand atop the carcass of a dead gray whale moments after helping tow it close to shore in the harbor at Neah Bay, Wash. Earlier in the day, Makah Indians hunted and killed the whale in their first successful hunt since voluntarily quitting whaling over 70 years earlier. Federal officials are now supporting the Native American tribe's decades-long request to resume whale hunts off the coast of Washington state.The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Thursday, April 4, 2019, announced its proposal to allow the Makah Tribe to hunt and harvest one to three gray whales annually over a 10-year period. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Elaine Thompson
In this May 17, 1999 file photo, two Makah Indian whalers stand atop the carcass of a dead gray whale moments after helping tow it close to shore in the harbor at Neah Bay, Wash. Earlier in the day, Makah Indians hunted and killed the whale in their first successful hunt since voluntarily quitting whaling over 70 years earlier.

A revival stalled by violent protests and bureaucracy

It has been nearly 25 years since whalers from the Makah tribe killed a gray whale and triumphantly towed it back to Neah Bay in Northwest Washington. Fists raised and facing virulent protests from animal rights activists, the successful hunt in May 1999 represented a key moment in their efforts to exercise tribal treaty rights and to revive important cultural traditions.

But the glory didn’t last long. Animal rights activists staged protests and made physical threats serious enough that the tribe put up a checkpoint on the only road into remote Neah Bay, to protect against violence. A series of lawsuits shut down the hunt and prevented any additional legal attempts to take more whales. The tribe’s leadership has abided by U.S. and international regulations, testing their patience for decades. Now, only minor bureaucratic hurdles remain till the tribe can revive the whale hunt.

TJ Greene sits at a conference table.
Bellamy Pailthorp
TJ Greene, the elected chairman of the five-member Makah Tribal Council, in March 2022 during an interview about the tribe's decision to close its reservation to outsiders for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ahead of the final decision, Greene told KNKX the tribe will be ready to respond to violent protests or any other form of opposition to their hunt this time around.

He said it’s not yet clear to him how long the permitting process with NMFS will take. Additionally, he noted that the waiver covers a 10-year period for the whale hunt, yet the permits will have to be renewed every three to five years, placing additional bureaucratic burdens on the tribe.

Greene said this uncertainty about the future is unnecessary.

“Our reserved rights are in perpetuity and do not have an expiration,” he said.

In acknowledgement of the long wait, NOAA Fisheries added a clause to their waiver that would allow the Makah Tribe to start their hunt mid-season, if they so choose. This new flexibility is meant to help the tribe to get back to their traditions as soon as possible.

A long and unique whaling tradition

For as long as anyone can remember, the Makah people have relied on the ocean for their livelihood. At the center of this was a whaling tradition so strong that, unlike any others among the federally recognized tribes in the Pacific Northwest, Makah leaders secured whaling in their treaty with the United States. Article 4 of the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay lists “the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing at usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

In the 1920s, the tribe voluntarily stopped whaling, when its hunters saw how unregulated commercial hunting had greatly reduced the eastern North Pacific gray whale population. The Makahs announced their intent to resume whaling in 1995, one year after federal officials announced the whales had recovered and removed them from the Federal List of Endangered Wildlife.

A black and white photo depicting a group of people working on various tasks around a whale on a beach.
Makah Cultural and Research Center
Members of the Makah Tribe process a whale on the beach at Neah Bay around 1910. The tribe voluntarily stopped whaling after commercial hunting greatly reduced the gray whale population.

A recent die-off of gray whales that is linked to climate change is part of what delayed the current waiver for so long.

The final decision did not come through till the conclusion of the so-called "unusual mortality event" that killed off about a third of the gray whales that migrate along the West Coast. They are rebounding now and officials say the small quota allowed for the Makahs will not pose any threat to the overall population.

To be certain of that, a new provision in the waiver approved on Thursday is the requirement for verification that the species has reached its "optimum sustainable population" level before the hunt. NOAA Fisheries spokesperson Michael Milstein told KNKX the current count of the gray whales has already met this criteria.

He said there is also a new provision to protect any western North Pacific gray whales, which are endangered. They don't normally frequent the area where the Makah hunt is authorized, but some have strayed in the past. The tribe is to assure officials they have a plan to avoid this species before they go out on a hunt. If there is a possibility of an accidental strike, they are to apply for an incidental take permit, under the Endangered Species Act.

In an interview before their waiver received approval, Greene said the tribe keeps tabs on the state of the whales and would never take action to harm the population. Makah traditions include spiritual practices meant to keep both the whales and humans healthy.

“We have greater love and greater care than anyone in the world, we believe, because of the things that we do to honor not just that whale and that spirit, but also the environment that it lives in,” Greene said.

And he said their treaty also protects the whales, by recognizing the Makah right to the hunt.

“Because there's a legal obligation of the federal government to honor those reserved rights, and to make sure that those stocks are healthy.”

Cara Kuhlman
KNKX Graphic via Canva

COIVD-19 also slowed the wheels of bureaucracy in the years after an administrative law judge issued his recommendation in favor of the hunt. That came in 2021, two years after a weeklong public hearing in Seattle.

Decades of opposition

At that time, the animal rights activists that so vehemently opposed the 1999 hunt testified against the proposed waiver. Sea Shepherd Legal, the Animal Welfare Institute and the Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales all voiced their continued opposition.

But the tribe said the atmosphere had changed; they no longer felt physically threatened by the militant protests that shut the hunt down nearly 25 years ago. And more of the general public seemed sympathetic to their desire to keep their culture alive.

It is hard to know how the Makah whale hunt will play out this time.

Members of the Makah tribe listen to testimony at Thursday's hearing.
Parker Miles Blohm
Members of the Makah Tribe listen to testimony at a 2019 administrative hearing for their request for a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Groups including Sea Shepherd Legal and the Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales testified in opposition of the waiver.

Greene said he has received a handful of hateful emails about the hunt but also that large environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, and EarthJustice now support the tribe’s right to a ceremonial and subsistence hunt

There are still at least two groups on record opposing the hunt on what they call scientific and legal grounds: the Animal Welfare Institute and the Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales. Both say they’re disappointed in the federal government’s decision.

Sea Shepherd has not responded to KNKX’s requests for comment.

DJ Schubert, a senior scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said they believe there is just no humane way to kill a large whale from a moving vessel, so the hunt would not satisfy the humane standard of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

"We will participate in that process, we will raise those concerns and provide the evidence that we have to suggest that this hunting method is not humane, and we'll have to wait and see what the government thinks and what their decision is,” Schubert said.

They plan to make that point when the tribe seeks its permit for this hunt.

Back in 2019, while the unusual mortality event was taking place, groups that opposed the waiver repeatedly cited conservation concerns and said the eastern North Pacific gray whale population remained fragile. Other testimony questioned the language of the treaty and said that the Makah could not claim a subsistence or cultural need after not whaling for decades.

Sea Shepherd Legal, which has since disbanded, issued the following statement ahead of the 2019 administrative hearing in Seattle:

"Sea Shepherd opposes the intentional killing of cetaceans, no matter the circumstances. From the Faroe Islands to Iceland, from Japan to Norway, Sea Shepherd’s opposition to whaling is categorical and uncompromising.”

Another argument made at the time was that the federal environmental review had not been sufficient. Over the next several years, NOAA Fisheries continued its review process and in 2023 they released the Final Environmental Impact Statement recommending a ceremonial hunt.

A long process for NOAA too

NOAA Fisheries said the legal process for granting a waiver for hunting under the Marine Mammal Protections Act is clearer now, because of past litigation. And the agency has followed it carefully, with all the important comment periods and analyses required by the law and verified by the courts.

“While that took time, it also helped the public see and understand the questions involved and the care with which we answered them,” said Milstein, the NOAA Fisheries spokesperson.

Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources for NOAA Fisheries' West Coast region, oversaw the team that worked on and advocated for the waiver within the agency.

Yates said while it's been a long and complex process, they wanted to support this waiver because they recognize the Makah tribe's cultural and subsistence needs for thousands of years, and their explicit treat right to hunt whales.

"We're really proud today to be one step closer to having the Makah tribe be on the water, resuming their cultural and subsistence practices," he said.

Yates described the whale population as "very healthy" and said that a very small, limited subsistence and cultural hunt is sustainable. Asked about what's changed since 1999, Yates credited the Makah for effectively telling their story and the successes of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

He said they are anxious to meet with the tribe and get the remaining regulations and cooperative agreement finalized and initiate the permit process.

Having reached this milestone, Greene said the process made their resolve and desire stronger.

"We're going to do this, and we're going to do it responsibly…in our manner, in our Makah way," he said.

The hope is that this extensive process has improved public understanding of tribal culture and of the low risk to the whales posed by the proposed hunt – enough that the hunt might take place more peacefully this time around.

Cara Kuhlman edited and contributed updates to this article.

Updated: June 14, 2024 at 12:20 PM PDT
Added link to Animal Welfare Institute's June 14 press release.
Updated: June 13, 2024 at 4:39 PM PDT
Added information and quotes from new interviews with the Makah Tribe, Animal Welfare Institute, Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales and NOAA Fisheries.
Updated: June 13, 2024 at 9:44 AM PDT
Added Sea Shepherd Legal's 2019 statement and that the Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales did not respond to request for comment. Added information about testimony opposing the waiver.
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