US Government Set to Approve Gray Whale Hunt

In 1999, the Makah Tribe of northwest Washington killed a gray whale, the first killed by the tribe since the late 1920s. The kill was made after the US government obtained a quota from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), thereby allowing the United States to authorize the Makah’s hunt. Whale protection groups sued, and in July 2000, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that—notwithstanding the quota—the gray whale hunt remained illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

The court’s ruling may soon be nullified, however, if the government grants the tribe’s request for a waiver of the MMPA—which prohibits the killing of marine mammals—to permit the hunt to restart. On April 5, 2019, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced a hearing on the waiver and the agency’s proposed rules governing the tribe’s hunt.

AWI has the utmost respect for the Makah Tribe, its people, and their culture. However, we are opposed to the tribe’s whaling request for several reasons. First, the killing, to be done with a harpoon followed by shooting the wounded animals with one or more 50 caliber shells, is inhumane. Second, the hunt could result in the killing of one or more members of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group, a unique and imperiled group of approximately 240 “resident” gray whales who remain off the coasts of Northern California, Oregon, Washington, and southwestern Canada during the summer months instead of migrating to the Arctic. It could also impact an even smaller population of critically endangered Western North Pacific gray whales, some of whom migrate from Russia down the West Coast of the United States to Mexico during the winter. 

Third, the 2019 proposed rule contains a new scheme for the hunt that was not explicitly included in any of the six alternatives evaluated in the 2015 draft environmental impact statement. The proposed rule details a bifurcated even-odd year whaling season structure with different strike, unsuccessful strike, and landing limits among other components. It even permits the Makah to harass whales during “practice” whaling in which tribal whalers chase and throw blunt harpoons at the fleeing animals. The National Environmental Policy Act requires supplemental analysis of this new scheme to assess its impacts on the environment, public safety, tourism, whale-watching operations, and animal welfare.

Finally, the proposed hunt does not meet the requisite criteria for aboriginal subsistence whaling. The tribe has not engaged in systematic whaling since the mid-1920s and is therefore not able to show the nutritional, subsistence, and cultural need for whales—or a “continual traditional dependence on whaling and the use of whales”—that the IWC requires. 

The Makah’s family and tribal traditions and rituals associated with their whaling history can continue without the resumption of whaling. The Makah could, if they choose, attract and educate untold numbers of visitors to their lands by promoting nonlethal use of whales through whale watching—an exceptional opportunity to educate visitors about whales, other marine wildlife, the protection of marine ecosystems, and Makah history and culture.

AWI will be participating in the waiver hearing in Seattle in August. Check our website for important updates in this case and for your opportunity to help protect gray whales. 

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