Washington state’s Maca tribe has lifted a major hurdle to resuming whaling

The United States on Thursday granted a long-term exemption to the Maka Indian tribe in Washington state, helping to clear the way for the first whaling allowed since 1999 and setting the stage for renewed clashes with animal rights activists.

The Maca, a tribe of 1,500 people on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, is the only Native American tribe with a treaty that specifically mentions the right to hunt whales. But it has faced more than two decades of court challenges, bureaucratic investigations and scientific studies as it seeks to resume hunting gray whales.

NOAA Fisheries’ decision provides exemptions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, otherwise preventing harm to marine mammals. It allows the tribe to hunt 25 eastern North Pacific gray whales over 10 years, with a limit of two to three per year. There are about 20,000 whales in that population.

The endangered western North Pacific gray whales are sometimes visited – about 200 to 300 remain – as well as a group of about 200 gray whales that usually feed in the summer and fall, and are hunted along the Northwest coast. .

However, there are some obstacles. Tribes must enter into a cooperative agreement with the agency under the Whaling Heritage Act and obtain a permit to hunt, which includes a month-long public comment period.

Maca Tribe did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Makkah Tribal Council chairman Timothy Green said he was “excited and relieved” about the decision, noting it had been a long process.

“It is a reserved treaty right, and the reason our ancestors reserved that right is because of our spiritual reverence for the sea and everything in it.” Green also called this a food sovereignty issue for tribes. “We’ll do it in a cedar canoe. It’s not a federal requirement. It’s our choice.”

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Green said no date has been set for the permit, and the tribe wants to get a waiver first. As for the vociferous opposition of the late ’90s, Greene said, “It was clearly defined in the (1855) Treaty of Neah Bay.”

“We hope there will be at least some understanding that we have our opinions and we have our rights just like they do. We went through a very rigorous process to get to this point.

Animal rights advocates, who have long opposed whaling, may challenge NOAA’s decision in court. DJ Schubert, a senior wildlife biologist at the Washington, DC-based Animal Welfare Institute, said his organization will oppose issuing the hunting permit, but may wait until final approvals are issued before deciding whether to sue.

Although the eastern North Pacific gray whale population appears healthy now, it has fluctuated wildly in recent years, and no one knows how the whales will fare as climate change continues to affect the Arctic, he noted. Scientists estimate that 40% of the population died from 2018 to last year.

“We fully respect tribal cultural practices and traditions,” Schubert said. “We fundamentally disagree that they should hunt whales to continue those traditions. We hope that as this decision-making process works, perhaps the Maka tribe and government will reconsider the need for whaling and advocate for conservation rather than persecution.”

Archaeological evidence shows that macaque hunters in cedar canoes have been killing whales since ancient times, which only stopped in the early 20th century after commercial whaling ships decimated the population.

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By 1994, the population of eastern Pacific gray whales had rebounded, and they were removed from the endangered species list. Seeing an opportunity to restore its heritage, the tribe announced plans to resume hunting.

Macka trained for months in the ancient ways of whaling and received the blessing of federal authorities and the International Whaling Commission. They took to the water in 1998, but didn’t have success until the following year, when they harpooned a gray whale from a hand-hewn cedar canoe. A tribal member in a motorized support boat killed it with a high-powered rifle to ease its suffering.

It was the tribe’s first successful hunt in 70 years.

The hunt drew protests from animal rights activists, who sometimes threw smoke bombs at the whales and sprayed their faces with fire extinguishers. Others steered motorboats between whalers and tribal boats to interfere with the hunt. Authorities seized and arrested several vessels.

After animal rights groups sued, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a federal permit for the tribe’s whaling programs. The court found that the tribe was entitled to an exemption under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Eleven Alaska Native communities in the Arctic have such exemptions for subsistence hunts, allowing them to kill bowhead whales — even though bowheads are listed as endangered.

The Makah Tribe applied for a waiver in 2005. This process is repeatedly halted as new scientific information emerges about the health of the whales and their populations.

Some macaw whales were so frustrated by the delay that they went on a hunt for a humpback whale in 2007, killing and drowning a gray whale that escaped them. They were convicted in federal court.

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