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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Makah Tribe may soon exercise treaty right to hunt gray whales off WA coast

A gray whale is pictured in this undated photo swimming off the coast of Oregon.  (GEMM Lab/Oregon State University)
By Isabella Breda Seattle Times

A gray whale is pictured in this undated photo swimming off the coast of Oregon.

SEATTLE – The Makah Tribe could soon be hunting gray whales again off the coast of Washington, under a final series of proposals released Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The tribe on the northwest tip of the continental United States hasn’t had a legally authorized gray whale hunt since 1999, which was the first in more than 70 years. The hunt revived a cultural tradition lost after nontribal commercial exploitation of the whales drove them nearly to extinction.

The tribe nearly two decades ago asked the federal agency to again resume the hunt. In 2021, an administrative law judge found that the tribal hunts would have no effect on the overall population of the whales.

When the Makah ceded thousands of acres to the U.S. government in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, they secured their right to whale off the coast of what would become Washington state. Heading into the ocean in a canoe, generations of whalers have carefully struck and killed the whales, providing oil, meat, bone, sinew and gut for the community to eat and use to make handicrafts and tools.

The relationship between Makah and the whales goes back millennia, as evidenced in Ozette deposits dating 2,000 years that hold humpback and gray whale bones and barbs from harpoons.

The federal agency Friday identified one of seven proposed actions as the preferred action. The option would provide a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act for the Makah Tribe to harvest whales. The option outlines an alternating winter/spring, summer/fall hunt season that would expire after 10 years and allow no more than 25 whales to be struck while the waiver is issued.

The tribe would need to get a permit from NOAA before each hunt. The preferred action would aim to reduce the risk of harm to the Pacific Coast feeding group and endangered western North Pacific gray whales.

The agency will issue a final decision on the hunt in 30 days or more.

All gray whale stocks are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The eastern north Pacific whales, found along the West Coast, were once listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act but successfully recovered and were delisted in 1994. The western north Pacific whale population, often found along the coast of eastern Asia, remains low in number and is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In 2017, an estimated 27,000 gray whales in the northeastern Pacific migrated between calving grounds in Baja and feeding grounds in the Arctic.

The eastern north Pacific gray whales showed another year of declines, today estimated at about 14,526 whales, but scientists found hope in finding more mothers with calves in 2023 than in any of the past five years.

Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.