NEAH BAY — The Makah Tribe would hunt from one to three Eastern North Pacific gray whales annually over 10 years under a federal proposal announced Thursday that could go into effect in 2020, federal and tribal officials said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recommendation threatens to renew divisions between anti-whaling and animal-rights advocates and the coastal tribe, whose last sanctioned whale hunt was in 1999.
“We never ceased continuing to move forward with our efforts,” Tribal County member Patrick DePoe said Thursday. “We’ve been on pause for quite some time. It’s a good feeling to see things starting to happen.”
NOAA has recommended that the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) moratorium that prohibits killing whales and other marine mammals should be waived to allow Makah tribal whaling.
The proposal will be reviewed and commented on at a hearing in front of Administrative Law Judge George A. Jordan at a 9:30 a.m. Aug. 12 at the Henry M. Jackson Building in Seattle.
“To waive the MMPA to actually kill whales, that’s a new one,” said Joyce resident Margaret Owens, who with her husband, Chuck, founded Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales.
“We don’t consider the killing of any gray whales acceptable, and we are particularly sensitive about our resident group of 30. We are back into saving whales, which we never did stop.”
Jordan will make a recommendation to Chris Oliver, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
If Oliver approves the waiver, the Makah would apply for a five-year renewable whaling permit with NOAA Fisheries to allow the hunt to proceed, NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein said Thursday.
After 10 years, the waiver would expire.
“We’d have to essentially re-examine everything and assess how things proceeded and see if we would propose a new waiver,” Milstein said.
The tribe, recognized as an aboriginal subsistence whaling group by the International Whaling Commission, would not need permission from the IWC if the waiver is approved, DePoe said.
In May 2007, the International Whaling Commission granted the Makah a harvest quota of up to 20 whales over five years, with no more than five in one year.
The agency’s proposal was announced almost 20 years to day when, on May 17, 1999, Makah whalers hunted and killed an Eastern North Pacific gray whale for the first time in more than 70 years, an event closely chronicled by national media.
The tribe asserted its right to whale under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, under which the Makah ceded thousands of acres of land to the U.S. government.
The tribe applied for the waiver in 2005 to hunt 20 gray whales every five years.
Under NOAA’s recommendation, Makah whalers could hunt up to three Eastern North Pacific gray whales in its usual and accustomed whaling areas on even- numbered years and one on odd-numbered years.
NOAA estimates the population of Eastern North Pacific gray whales is 27,000.
The Eastern Northern Pacific whales would be harpooned, then dispatched with .50-caliber rifles, as the gray whale was in 1999.
Milstein said Makah whalers would hunt in a way that the approximately 192 whales in the Pacific Coast Feeding Group (PCFG) gray whales — including 30 “resident” whales that feed close to Clallam County’s shores and the 200 whales in the endangered Western North Pacific (WNP) gray whale population — would not be harmed.
The WNP population inhabits waters off Russia and visits waters in the the tribe’s usual and accustomed areas.
“Even-year hunts would occur during the migration season (Dec. 1 of an odd-numbered year through May 31 of the subsequent even-numbered year) to reduce risk to PCFG whales,” according to NOAA’s report.
“Odd-year hunts would occur during the feeding season (July 1 through Oct. 30 of odd-numbered years) to reduce risk to WNP whales,” according to the report.
The risk of striking WNP whales during even-numbered years is one in 170 years, Milstein said.
At that time of year, they are off the Russian coast, Milstein said.
If a Western North Pacific whale were struck at any point, hunting would cease, then would resume after further measures were examined to eliminate the risk to that population, Milstein said.
The risk to PCFG whales, a subset of the Eastern North Pacific whales, would be minimized by setting a limit of 16 whales struck with a harpoon over the course of the 10-year waiver period, Milstein said.
PCFG whales have been photo-identified between June 1-Nov. 30 during two or more years between Northern California and Northern Vancouver Island.
If the PCFG population falls below 192, all whale hunting would cease until that number increases to above 192, Milstein said.
The number of strikes, or whales that can be harpooned, would be limited.
Three Eastern North Pacific gray whales could be harpooned during even-year hunts and two could be struck during odd-year hunts.
Sixteen PCFG whales could be struck over 10 years.
DePoe said the tribe revised its waiver application to protect Pacific Coast Feeding Group and Western North Pacific whales.
“We are doing what we need to do to be responsible stewards of our environment,” DePoe said.
DePoe was a high school student in May 1999 when he stood on the beach at Neah Bay and helped haul in the 30-foot gray whale that was killed off Cape Alava.
“That feeling you had, that overwhelming sense of pride in who you are, that cultural, spiritual component that you feel at the moment, it was amazing,” DePoe recalled.
Whaling is ingrained in Makah culture, he said.
“With the anniversary itself and the length of time it has taken to get to this point, this is emotional, it’s very emotional,” he said.
But Owens said in an email that the plan “allows Makah hunters to specifically target our local whales in the coastal near-shore every other summer.”
She said that under NOAA’s proposal, Makah tribal whalers “have full permission” to kill a resident whale.
“There will be much heartbreak and community distress as whales are harpooned, shot and dragged up on the beach year after year.”