Native Americans Want to Hunt Gray Whales, Again. Do They Have the Right?

Animal rights advocates oppose granting a whaling-ban waiver to the Makah tribe.

In 1999 the Makah tribe killed its first whale in more than 70 years. It hopes to continue the hunt. (Photo: Anthony Bolante/Reuters)

Mar 12, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

What is more important: honoring a Native American tribe’s 2,000-year-old tradition and its 160-year-old treaty with the United States, or protecting the lives of gray whales?

That’s the question at the core of the Makah tribe’s desire to resume hunting gray whales. The Washington state native nation has asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to waive federal marine mammal protections that ban the hunt, and they believe the law is on their side. As former chairman Ben Johnson Jr. wrote to NOAA in 2005, “Under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, the Makah Tribe secured an express right to hunt whales throughout its usual and accustomed grounds and stations.”

The Makah historically hunted gray whales for food and spiritual ceremonies but ceased in the 1920s, when gray whale numbers were at an all-time low.

After the federal government ended endangered species protections for gray whales in 1994, the tribe set out to resume its traditional practice. In 1999 Makah hunters legally killed the tribe’s first gray whale in more than seven decades.

Since then, the Makah and the federal government have been steadily in and out of court with opponents of whale hunting. In 2005 the Makah applied again for a whaling-ban waiver, without success.

Now the tribe has again asked NOAA for permission to hunt, proposing to take up to 20 gray whales in any five-year period, with five whales killed at most during any calendar year. The agency recently responded with a 1,230-page draft environmental impact analysis that includes several options, from maintaining the ban to allowing up to 24 whales to be hunted over a six-year period.

“This is the public’s opportunity to look at the alternatives,” NOAA official Donna Darm said in a statement, “and let us know if we have fully and completely analyzed the impacts.”

The public can comment on the report until June 11, but a number of animal rights groups have already shared their views against the hunt.

Some argue that the Makah do not qualify for “aboriginal subsistence whaling” allowances under the rules of the International Whaling Commission. “Whaling must be central to the culture of the claimants,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia, the executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation in North America, in an email, “and the claimants must have a long and uninterrupted history of whaling.”

The Makah can’t make the latter claim, she said, because of their 70-year hunting hiatus in the 20th century.

Another concern is genetic diversity. According to NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein, “Some distinct groups of gray whales may be amongst the larger Pacific population that migrates up and down the West Coast” but are not visually distinguishable from the much larger Pacific population.

They include western North Pacific gray whales, which are known to travel from Asia to North America and, at an estimated 130 individuals, are critically endangered.

The other is a population of gray whales that remains in the Pacific Northwest over the summer rather than migrating south to Mexico. This group’s numbers may be only in the hundreds, and some could be killed during the proposed Makah hunt.

Makah tribal council chairman T.J. Greene did not respond to an interview request. He recently told a reporter with UPI that he hopes the new application for a legal hunt “leads to being able to practice our traditions, our culture.”

Should culture trump animal welfare? Opponents of aboriginal whaling have sometimes been labeled as racist or culturally insensitive.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute, said in an email. “The reality is that circumstances change, traditions change, and cultures change.”

Instead of whaling, the Makah tribe should establish whale-watching operations, Schubert said. That would allow it to “interact with the gray whale without harming them, bring tourists and their revenue to Neah Bay, while allowing the Makah to educate people about their culture and heritage.”