Makah Tribe Wins Federal Approval to Hunt Gray Whales

Makah Tribe Wins Federal Approval to Hunt Gray Whales

The Makah Tribe, which has long sought approval to resume hunting whales off the Washington State coast, won approval from federal regulators on Thursday to harvest as many as 25 gray whales over the next decade.

The decision from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is a crucial victory for the tribe in its decades-long quest to resume whaling traditions that were enshrined as a right in an 1855 treaty. Tribal leaders have said the whaling is needed for the tribe’s culture and welfare at a time when each is under threat.

The United States largely outlawed whaling more than 50 years ago because many species had been hunted to the edge of extinction. Since then, the Eastern North Pacific gray whales that the tribe plans to hunt have made a population comeback, and were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.

Still, conservation groups and others have vehemently fought against the hunts, arguing that the whales need continuing protection, that the intelligent and social mammals would suffer from the hunts, and that some species with smaller populations could be placed at risk.

The Makah, with about 3,000 enrolled members, are based at a reservation in the remote northwest corner of Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula, where the timber industry endured steep declines at the end of the 20th century and salmon have also grown more scarce. The tribe has sought to diversify its marine fisheries, some of which have been declining, and to restore its whaling past.

Long ago, whale hunts were central to Makah culture, and were surrounded by rituals and ceremonies while serving as the inspiration for songs, dances and basketry. Tribal leaders said resuming the hunts could restore a new generation’s connection with the tribe’s seafaring past.

Declines in subsistence living over the years led tribal members to rely on outside food sources and modern diets, leading to concerns about diabetes and heart disease. Tribal leaders said they were hopeful that whaling could help members return to healthier ways.

The tribe’s treaty rights, unlike any other in the nation, explicitly allow for the taking of whales (Alaska Natives also are permitted to conduct limited whale hunts). Efforts by the Makah to exercise the treaty provision have been hampered by court challenges and political blowback.

After going decades without hunting, the tribe briefly won legal approval a quarter-century ago, and successfully hunted a gray whale in 1999. Conservation activists tried to halt the efforts, using motorized boats to block the tribe’s hunting canoes from reaching whales or to scare whales away from the area. Hackers took control of the tribe’s website. Whalers received death threats. Protesters in downtown Seattle carried signs that included a slogan: “Save a whale, kill a Makah.”

By the following year, a federal appeals court determined that the environmental impact of the hunting had not been adequately considered and ordered a halt to further hunts.

The Makah will not be allowed to resume whaling immediately; instead, the tribe will have to complete a series of preparatory steps outlined by federal authorities.

Leaders of the tribe have said they also need time to train hunters.

During the 1999 whale hunt, tribe members paddled in wood canoes over the course of several days before using a traditional harpoon to snag a 30-foot whale. A high-powered rifle was used to kill the whale before crews towed it to shore. The meat was consumed as part of tribal ceremonies.

The tribe has proposed following a similar method for future hunts.

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