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Gray Whales Could Soon be Targets of Tribal Whales Hunts

Mar 09, 2015 05:50 PM EDT

Gray whales could soon be the targets of tribal whale hunts as the NOAA currently considers making the practice legal once again.

Normally, the Marine Mammal Protection Act protects whale species such as the gray whale from human predation. This includes organized hunts by the Makah Indian tribe, for example, an indigenous people of the Northwest Plateau in Washington state. Despite their 2,000-year whaling tradition, in the last decade they have been banned from killing these marine animals.

But now, following the release of an NOAA draft report on Friday, the tribe may be able to start hunting whales once again.

The draft proposes six options ranging from prohibiting an annual hunt for North Pacific gray whales to allowing up to 24 to be harvested within a six-year period.

"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 in the West Coast region, told The Seattle Times.

Under a treaty negotiated in 1855, indigenous tribes such as the Makah were previously legally allowed to hunt whales. However, a series of court rulings have prevented the practice in recent years.

Before, 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 ruling, in 2007 five Makah tribe members carried out an illegal hunt. It took several hours for the whale to finally die, sparking outrage among animal advocates everywhere.

"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." (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Flickr: Joe McKenna)

Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) were removed from the list of threatened and endangered species in 1994, and are currently listed as "least concern" on the IUCN Red List. But while their North Pacific population is estimated to be around 20,000, according to NOAA Fisheries, other types of gray whales are far more endangered. This includes those populations that spend much of their time near Russia, and also appear off the Washington coast.

"The loss of even one of those whales to whaling by the Makah would be disastrous," Schubert told KiroTV.

The Makah tribe historically hunted gray whales for subsistence and ceremonial purposes, and has been asking for the ability to resume hunting whales since 2005.

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

If their wish is granted, to protect those species that may be threatened by these hunts, officials might make it so the tribe can only hunt at times when they're unlikely to be in the area.

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

Controversy surrounding whale hunts is nothing new. Japan's "scientific" whaling in Antarctic Seas has long been a highly debated topic, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) finally banned the practice in March 2014. Japanese hunters had long been operating under the guise that their whaling activities - which targeted mainly minke whales - were for research purposes.

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