Another Next Step in Makah Tribe Whale Hunt Application
March 1, 2020
On January 29 the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced an important step in the process to allow the Makah Indian Tribe to “take” a limited number of Eastern North pacific gray whales. “Take,” in this context, means to hunt and kill. The Makah view whaling as integral to the tribe’s culture, as important today as it was centuries ago. The Makah reservation is at the westernmost tip of Washington State, where the Pacific becomes the Salish Sea.
Last April, NMFS published a proposed rule that would grant a waiver to the Makah tribe, allowing the hunt. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits killing marine mammals but it authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to waive that prohibition and issue regulations governing the take if certain statutory criteria are met.
Not surprisingly, there is strong opposition to the waiver. Consider comments from the Animal Welfare Institute, submitted in 2015, but reintroduced into the current record. AWI asks why this is an NMFS priority when the Makah have not hunted whales for almost 90 years. AWI notes further that the Makah themselves have provided statements that tribal whaling started to decline in the mid-nineteenth century.
The April proposal set the stage for a public hearing, held over seven days last November. Next comes an opportunity for public comment, where the matter stands now. Comments are due by March 16.
Then, the reams of documents that make up the file for the proposed waiver will be reviewed by a presiding officer; a decision will be sent to a NOAA Fisheries’ Assistant Administrator. That initiates another public comment period. Following that, the Assistant Administrator makes a final decision. The process still doesn’t end: the Makah would apply for a permit, also subject to public notice and comment. All timelines are fluid. This is a slow process – it started in 2005.
For NMFS, the critical decisions are whether their allowance maintains the correct balance within a seemingly endless mix of variables, frequently very emotional variables. Officials have to respect whaling-fishing treaties between the Makah and the federal government. They have to protect whales, not just individually, but within ecosystem dynamics.
Most importantly, NMFS has to set the terms and conditions that maintain all of these checks and balances. Critically, this hunt would not be a free for all. To the contrary. It limits, for example, total “take” – a proposed 25 whales over ten years. The Pacific gray whale population is estimated to be 27,000. Is twenty-five “takes” fair, in balance?
NMFS’ conditions go beyond mortalities. The waiver limits and controls almost everything – from “humane killing,” to practice hunts, to the subsequent use of marine mammal products to possible final dispatch using a 0.50 caliber rifle.
Tom Ewing is a freelance writer specializing in energy, environmental and related regulatory issues.