By Rachel Roberts
Should Native American tribes with centuries-old cultural traditions built around killing whales be allowed to renew the practice now that whale populations are increasing again?
The Makah are a Native American tribe situated in Neah Bay, Washington. The recent controversy surrounding the tribe is a result of their desire to start hunting gray whales again—a tradition that dates back hundreds of years.
The situation became tricky for the Makah when legislation related to the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammals Act made hunting whales illegal. The gray whale was nearly hunted to extinction by European and Russian whalers in the mid to late 1900s. Populations for the gray whale dropped as low as 2,000 individuals during this time, causing them to be placed on the Endangered Species List.
It has been over a decade since the Makah last killed any gray whales, but with the return of gray whale numbers to over 20,000 individuals, tribal leaders for the Makah have announced plans to hunt 20 whales over the course of the next five years; a number approved by the International Whaling Commission.
In the past, the Makah have hunted primarily for cultural and subsistence reasons. For over 1,000 years, whaling has been a central part of their culture as they have a number of specific prayers, dances, songs, and other cultural traditions dedicated to whaling. In fact, the Makah are the only Native American tribe that specifically requested the right to whale when they first signed their treaty with the United States in the 1800s.
Last Monday, the public had a chance to voice their opinions regarding whether the Makah should be allowed to whale. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the agency that has been tasked with deciding whether the Makah should be able to whale, and if so, how many whales are appropriate for the tribe. Federal regulators have yet to take a side on the matter; however, officials listened to arguments by both sides during the public hearing last Monday.
A new federal draft report is currently being developed, offering options ranging from no whaling at all to allowing the Makah to kill up to five whales a year. Citizen Jeff Powell pointed out that whaling is “in their [the Makah’s] treaty rights. You know, that’s the big thing. We need to honor it.” Other citizens raised concerns over the precedent that allowing the Makah to whale will set for the rest of the world.
No members of the Makah were at Monday’s meeting. A second and final public hearing is scheduled for this Wednesday in Port Angeles, WA, with a decision by NOAA expected shortly thereafter.