The Makah whale hunt is back in court. The tribe wants to resume a limited hunt of gray whales off the Washington coast. An administrative judge in Seattle will hear arguments for and against over several days, starting Thursday at 1 p.m.
The Makah Indian Tribe says whale hunting is a tradition so central to its culture, they protected it in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay.
“Our people have never lost sight of the importance of whaling,” said Janine Ledford, a tribal member and executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center. “It’s never really left our identity.”
Ledford says that treaty right is unique in the United States. “And we feel it’s important to exercise our treaty rights and so, after gray whales were delisted, we started making plans to resume the hunt.”
That was in the mid-1990s. In the spring of 1999, with the blessing of the federal government, the Makah took one gray whale, using their traditional canoes and spears. But since then, court battles have prevented any additional whaling.
Now, the tribe is seeking a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, for a ceremonial hunt limited to roughly two to three whales per year over the next decade. It would be limited to the outer coast, to protect populations that frequent the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
NOAA Fisheries supports this and says it poses no conservation concern. Gray whales were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1994.
But animal rights groups, including Sea Shepherd and the Animal Welfare Institute, disagree.
D.J. Shubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute, will come to Seattle to testify. He says the mysterious deaths of more than 200 gray whales washing up off the West Coast from Canada to Mexico this year indicates that the population is fragile.
“It’s really a matter of what risks do we want to take, from our perspective, given all the threats and the changes in the arctic as a result of climate change,” Shubert said. “And given the current unusual mortality event, now is not the time to authorize resumption of whaling by the Makah tribe.”
Cross examinations in the case are expected to continue for several days.