Makah Tribe whaling hearing begins

NOAA waiver focus of proceedings in Seattle

PORT ANGELES — A federal agency’s April 4 recommendation to allow the Makah Tribe to resume whaling on grounds that killing the animals would not have a noticeable impact on the species’ population will be put to the test beginning Thursday, Nov. 14, in Seattle.

U.S. Coast Guard Administrative Law Judge George J. Jordan will begin reviewing arguments at 1 p.m. on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s decision to grant the tribe a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The hearing room is at the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building.

Jordan must make a recommendation “promptly” to Chris Oliver, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, according to federal regulations, said Michael Milstein, NOAA spokesperson. The hearing is expected to last through Nov. 22.

An overflow room at the Jackson Building will be provided where onlookers can view today’s proceeding on a monitor, Milstein said.

A 2015 draft environmental impact statement on Makah whaling by the National Marine Fisheries Service generated 57,000 comments, most of which were form letters.

Under a 1998 whale-hunting quota issued by NOAA, the Makah last hunted and killed an Eastern North Pacific Gray Whale in a sanctioned hunt May 17, 1999, sparking local protests and focusing an international news spotlight on the North Olympic Peninsula.

The tribe applied for a waiver application in 2005.

In its April 4 decision, NOAA recommended approval to kill three whales in even-year hunts and one whale in odd-year hunts beginning in 2020 and lasting 10 years — a maximum average of 1.6 whales a year.

The tribe applied for the waiver under rights granted in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay for a ceremonial and subsistence harvest of the animals.

Sixteen harpoon strikes — the whale would be dispatched with a .50-caliber rifle — would be allowed over the 10-year period.

“The ENP gray whale stock’s abundance, based on the best available evidence, is approximately 26,960 animals, and the stock currently is and has long been within its [optimal sustainable population] levels,” Chris Yates, assistant regional administrator for protected resources for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMSF), said in a declaration to Jordan.

“The proposed waiver and regulations would, at a maximum, reduce the ENP gray whale stock by 0.009 percent per year on average, or 0.09 percent over the 10-year waiver period.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act establishes a moratorium on taking marine mammals “with some exceptions,” Yates said.

“The number of removals that could occur under the proposed waiver is well below the [potential biological removal] limit calculated for the stock.

“We conclude that this level of removals would not have a discernible effect on the ENP stock’s abundance.”

Yates said the waiver and regulations meet requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and provide a “durable framework and a precautionary approach” for governing a tribal whale hunt.

Yates is among 18 witnesses listed to testify, including Joyce-area resident Margaret Owens, an organizer of Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales. She was not available for comment Wednesday.

“Margaret is going to do her best to represent the great gray whales as well as the majority of Peninsula citizens who do not want to be subjected to an annual slaughter,” her husband, Chuck, a co-organizer of the group, said Wednesday.

He said the tribal hunt will target “our small group of local whales” an estimated 33 whales that “continually come back” to the area where they could be killed.

David Weller, an NMFS wildlife research biologist, submitted a declaration to Jordan calling the assertion “incorrect and misleading.”

“That number does not refer to the same individual whales present within the Makah [usual and accustomed hunting area] year after year; it represents the average number of whales in a given year documented in the Makah U&A that have been identified and catalogued anywhere within the [Pacific Coast Feeding Group] range,” Weller said.

If Oliver approves the waiver, the Makah could apply for a five-year renewable whaling permit with NOAA Fisheries to allow the hunt to proceed.

After 10 years, the waiver would expire.

The declarations and other waiver documents are at tinyurl.com/PDN-MakahPermit.

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Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

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