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Washington's Makah Indian tribe could soon hunt gray whales

The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects whales from human predation, but in some instances indigenous groups are offered exemptions.

By Brooks Hays
Washington's Makah Indian tribe could soon hunt gray whales
A photo from 1910 shows a group of Makah Indians on the beach after a whale hunt. Photo by Asahel Curtis/Seattle Public Library

SEATTLE, March 9 (UPI) -- The Makah Indian tribe, an indigenous people of the Northwest Plateau in Washington state, have been prohibited in recent years from whaling, a part of the culture that the natives have practiced for more than 2,000 years.

But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has finally responded to a request by the Makah that they be allowed to resume their whaling traditions. The new 229-page draft report opens the door for allowing the tribe being to hunt whales once again. But first it will be open to a public comment period.

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"This is a first step in a public process ... that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales," Donna Darm, associate deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries on the West Coast, told the Seattle Times.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects whales from human predation, but in some instances indigenous groups are offered exemptions that allow for limited and heavily regulated hunts to occur.

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"The tribe hopes it leads to being able to practice our traditions, our culture," T.J. Greene, chairman of Makah's tribal council, told KiroTV.

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Under a treaty negotiated in 1855, the Makah are legally allowed to hunt whales, but a series of court rulings have prevented the practice over the last decade. Previously, the Makah had been allowed to hunt one baleen whale -- a group that includes gray and blue whales -- per year. But the tribe last hunted a whale legally in 1999. A 2004 court ruling specified that an environmental impact study had to be produced before the Makah could be once again granted an exemption.

Despite the injunction against whaling, five Makah tribe members carried out an illegal hunt in 2007. The hunters shot a whale with a high-powered rifle, but it took several hours for the whale to finally die. Animal rights activists have argued that whaling is unnecessarily brutal. It's likely that any lifting of the injunction would be contested in the courts.

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"We recognize the cultural importance of whales to the tribes, and intend no disrespect," explained D.J. Schubert, a biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. "But whaling is inherently cruel. These are incredibly intelligent, sentient creatures, and they do suffer."

Public meetings will be held throughout April, but a final ruling by the NOAA likely won't come for another year or two.

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