Tribe patient in treaty rights case
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JANUARY 31, 2001

A battle over treaty rights and environmental protection will see its first official debate tomorrow at a public hearing on the controversial gray whale hunt of the Makah Nation of Washington.

Although the hunt has been the target of animal rights activists ever since the tribe in 1999 resumed one of its most treasured cultural traditions, public response to the practice has been limited primarily to Internet campaigns, lawsuits, and in-person protests. And while its not likely these activities will end any time soon, the federal government is actively soliciting public comments on the hunt for the first time.

Mandated by a court challenge raised by former animal rights groups and former Representative Jack Metcalf (R-Wash), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) last month issued a draft environmental assessment on the hunt. The NMFS is also holding a hearing tomorrow in Seattle, Washington, even though it isn't required to do so by law, and anti-whaling activists are hoping to use the public forum to enter their opposition into the public record.

But after waiting more than 70 years to resume its hunt, the Makah Nation of Washington isn't worried about the scrutiny and the additional levels of review. Tribal officials this week put a positive spin on the past two years of battles with their foes.

"I doubt our ancestors envisioned all this paperwork and process when they made the agreement to give up half their lands and retained their right to whale," said Chairman Greig Arnold. "But the one thing that a couple more years has shown is that the gray whale population is indeed healthy."

The only tribe with a treaty-secured right to hunt whales, Makah whaling families suspended the practice after commercial exploitation worldwide drove the whale to endangered status. The gray whale was eventually removed from the endangered species list in 1994 and the draft environmental assessment puts the current population at about 26,000.

Anti-whalers like the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose members were absent during last year's hunt after heavily protesting it in 1999, dispute the figure and say the hunt will have adverse impacts on the environment. But Vice-Chairman Gordon Smith hopes the public will approach the issue with an open mind.

"We would hope people can set aside their emotions for a moment and read the environmental assessment and realize the gray whale population is healthy and what the law says about our treaty," he said. "We hope they can understand where we're coming from."

The four options being considered by the public address how and when the hunt will occur for the next two years. The first option would limit hunting during the whales' annual migrations between Alaska and Mexico under conditions similar to the hunts of previous years. One whale was killed in 1999 but whalers weren't successful last year.

The second option would allow hunting at all times of the year, including a limited hunt outside the migration period, while a third would place no limits on when or how the tribe would hunt. All of these three options impose a maximum of five whales killed during the next two years.

The final option would not set a quota for hunting at all. But the government says the tribe could sue in order to enforce its treaty rights or it could continue to hunt whales should no quota be issued.

Written comments are being accepted until February 16.

Get the Draft Environmental Assessment:
Makah Whaling Draft Environmental Assessment (NMFS January 2001)

Send Public Comments on Draft to:
Gale Heim
Office of Protected Resources
NOAA Fisheries, 1315East-West Highway
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Only on Indianz.Com:
The Makah Whale Hunt (A Top Story of 1999)

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Makah whale hunt up for review (Enviro 01/16)
Whaling protester sentenced (The Talking Circle 09/05)
Makah ruling overturned (Tribal Law 6/9)
Metcalf's Indian history (The Talking Circle 6/9)
Metcalf pleased with ruling (Tribal Law 6/9)
Protester to face court (Tribal Law 06/06)
Injured whale hunt protester remains defiant (The Talking Circle 4/21)

Relevant Links:
The Makah Nation -