Washington Native American Tribe Wins Right to Resume Gray Whale Hunting After 20 Year Battle

by Lauren Boisvert

The Makah Tribe in Neah Bay, Washington could once again be allowed to hunt gray whales; administrative law judge George Jordan recommended that the Makah be allowed to resume their traditional practices in a 156-page recommendation to the U.S. Department of Commerce. He stated in the recommendation that the Makah should be allowed to hunt up to 3 gray whales per year.

Unexplained die-offs caused the gray whale population to drop from 27,000 to 21,000-25,000 since 2019; Jordan stated that the annual whale hunts would not significantly impact the population. But while Jordan generally approved of the recommendation, he also proposed further restrictions. These could reduce the number of whales caught in a decade from 20 to 5.

The tribe’s last whale hunt took place in 1999; after pushback from animal rights activists, it was ruled in 2002 that the tribe would need a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to continue their hunts. They applied in 2005 but never received the waiver.

Cultural Significance of the Whale Hunt

The Makah have been hunting whales for over 2,700 years; they started in 1855 after a treaty with the U.S. and continued into the 1920s. They stopped then, as commercial whaling had depleted the population. When the whale population grew again in 1994, the Makah picked up their traditional practices again. They were met with heavy opposition from animal rights groups.

“We’re not doing this for commercial reasons,” said Makah Tribe vice-chairman Patrick DePoe in a recent statement, “We’re doing it for spiritual and cultural reasons.” DePoe was in high school when the Makah had their last whale hunt.

“Whale hunting provides a purpose and a discipline which benefits their entire community,” according to the Neah Bay website, which outlines the tribe’s traditions and whaling practices. For the tribe, the whales provide food and bone for crafts, as well as “oil…sinew and gut for storage containers.”

Pushback from Animal Rights Activists

The tribe has dealt with frustrations from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Animal Welfare Institute over the years; Sea Shepherd and AWI believe the practice of hunting gray whales is “barbaric and unnecessary,” according to the Daily Mail.

“These are highly social and sensitive creatures. We should be protecting them,” said Sea Shepherd activist Catherine Pruett told King 5 in 2019. “They’re so important for ecosystems. As a culture, we need to know not to do this.”

Wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute DJ Shubert expressed similar views in an email statement, writing, “In light of these acute threats, a hunt of these animals is biologically insupportable and inconsistent with the protective provisions of the MMPA [Marine Mammal Protection Act].”

But Patrick DePoe says that whaling is inherently part of the tribe’s culture; it represents respect for the animals. “The connection between us and the whales is strong,’ he said in a statement. “Tribes across the Northwest have always considered ourselves stewards of the land, stewards of the animals. We’re not trying to do anything that is going to add to the depletion of these resources.”