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Makah Tribal Whale Hunt Frequently Asked Questions

NOAA Fisheries has received a request from the Makah Indian Tribe for a limited waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act moratorium on take of gray whales. In response, NOAA Fisheries has announced a proposed waiver and regulations, as well as a hearing and how interested parties can participate.


Can you please provide some context on this issue?

On February 14, 2005, NOAA Fisheries received a request from the Makah Indian Tribe for a limited waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) moratorium on take of Eastern North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus).  The Tribe requested that NOAA Fisheries authorize a tribal hunt in the coastal portion of the Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing area for ceremonial and subsistence purposes and authorize the making and sale of handicrafts created from the harvested whales.  The MMPA imposes a general moratorium on the taking of marine mammals but authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to waive the moratorium and issue regulations governing the take of marine mammals if certain statutory criteria are met.

Today, NOAA Fisheries is publishing concurrent Federal Register notices announcing the proposed waiver and regulations, as well as the commencement of a hearing with an administrative law judge and the process by which interested parties can participate in that hearing. This comes after NOAA Fisheries released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the Makah Tribe’s waiver request in 2015, which analyzed the Tribe’s hunt proposal and other alternatives. NOAA Fisheries received hundreds of public comments on the DEIS, which it took into consideration when issuing this proposed rule.

To see a timeline, past documents, and past comments, please visit: Makah Tribal Whale Hunt

Why would NOAA Fisheries consider allowing the Makah Tribe hunt gray whales?

The 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay between the Makah Tribe and the U.S. expressly provides the Tribe the right to hunt whales. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has specified the process the Tribe must follow to exercise that right, including seeking a waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and obtaining the necessary permits from NOAA Fisheries. It would also be up to NOAA Fisheries to establish regulations for a hunt. Both NOAA Fisheries and the Tribe are following that process.

In 2005, the Tribe requested that NOAA Fisheries grant a limited waiver of the MMPA take moratorium to resume treaty-based hunting of ENP gray whales in the Tribe’s usual and accustomed fishing area for ceremonial and subsistence purposes. In the 2015 DEIS, we examined different options for conducting such a hunt, including how many whales could be killed, and during what time of the year. We have since considered the hundreds of public comments we received on the DEIS and continued our analysis of restrictions for any hunt. In addition, we have used the latest research on the population size and structure of the Eastern North Pacific stock of gray whales to assess the potential impacts of the proposed hunt on the stock, and – as required under the MMPA – concluded that the small number of animals that could be taken will not disadvantage the stock.

Does this decision grant the Makah Tribe’s request to hunt gray whales?

No, but it does move the Tribe closer to that goal. We are now proposing to waive the restrictions of the MMPA and proposing regulations for a tribal hunt. An administrative law judge will next evaluate our proposal in a trial-like hearing scheduled to occur in November 2019. The judge will recommend to NOAA’s Assistant Administrator for Fisheries, who oversees NOAA Fisheries, whether to go forward with the waiver and final regulations. The Assistant Administrator will make the final decision after receiving that recommendation.

How soon could the Makah Tribe hunt whales, if granted permission?

It is too soon to say if or when the Tribe might resume such hunts. As described in the flowchart below (Figure 1), there are many additional steps and processes in our review of the Tribe’s request. 

Makah Waiver Request Process Flowchart_4-1-19.png


Figure 1:  Flowchart of NOAA Fisheries’ Steps in Granting or Denying the Makah Tribe’s Request for a Waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s (MMPA) Take Moratorium. (Source: National Marine Fisheries Service, March 2019)  Download file.

Will hunting jeopardize gray whales on the West Coast?

The proposed Makah hunt would remove at most 2-3 whales per year from the estimated population of nearly 27,000 Eastern North Pacific gray whales that migrate along the West Coast. NOAA Fisheries scientists monitor the gray whale population closely through regular stock assessments and recently concluded that the stock has fully recovered from the days of commercial whaling and has been stable since the mid-1990s. The most recent stock assessment of ENP gray whales estimated that over 600 individuals could be removed annually from the population without affecting the stock’s optimum sustainable population size, which is the level that achieves maximum productivity of the population, keeping in mind the carrying capacity of the habitat and the health of the eastern Pacific Ocean ecosystem upon which the whales rely.

What rules would the Tribe have to follow in hunting whales?

The proposed regulations governing the Tribe’s hunt are detailed in the Federal Register notice, and include harvest limits on gray whales, time and area restrictions, use of gray whale parts (including tribal handicrafts), and hunt monitoring. The basis for the various provisions in these regulations stem from the 2015 DEIS in which NOAA Fisheries analyzed several hunt alternatives, including the Tribe’s proposal. The different alternatives consider a number of factors including impacts on other wildlife and public safety, and each one takes a different approach to protect a smaller group of Eastern North Pacific gray whales known as the “Pacific Coast Feeding Group” or that feeds in the Northwest throughout the summer. The proposed regulations also consider the need to provide protection for gray whales from the western North Pacific stock, which are far fewer in number (approximately 200 animals) than those from the Eastern North Pacific stock.

Where can I get more information?

More details are available at: Makah Tribal Whale Hunt

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on April 30, 2021