Environmental Policy News

NOAA Fisheries Authorizes Makah Tribe to Resume Gray Whale Hunt

NOAA Fisheries announced the final rule and decision to grant the Makah Tribe a waiver from the take prohibitions in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). This waiver provides for a limited subsistence and ceremonial hunt of Eastern North Pacific gray whales in accordance with the Treaty of Neah Bay of 1855 and quotas established by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). This waiver authorizes the Makah Tribe to resume hunting up to 25 Eastern North Pacific gray whales over a 10-year period in US waters.

Prior to a hunt, NOAA Fisheries and the Tribe must enter into a cooperative agreement under the Whaling Convention Act, and the Tribe must apply for and receive a hunt permit. The final rule includes time and area restrictions, harvest limits, low population thresholds, restrictions on the use of gray whale parts, and reporting and monitoring requirements.

“This final rule represents a major milestone in the process to return ceremonial and subsistence hunting of Eastern North Pacific gray whales to the Makah Tribe,” said Janet Coit, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “The measures adopted today honor the Makah Tribe's treaty rights and their cultural whaling tradition that dates back well over 1,000 years and is fundamental to their identity and heritage.”

Under this final rule, there will be no change to the number of Eastern North Pacific gray whales that can be hunted under a quota first established by the IWC in 1997. The IWC quota is shared between the Makah Tribe and the Chukotkan Natives in Russia. This action will allow the Makah Tribe to use the quota which has in past years been transferred to Russia. No more than 2–3 whales may be hunted each year by the Tribe in US waters. In addition, NOAA Fisheries will maintain adaptive management strategies to ensure the protection of endangered Western North Pacific gray whales and the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of Eastern North Pacific gray whales.

Earlier this year, NOAA Fisheries closed the Unusual Mortality Event for the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population, which included 690 gray whale strandings from December 17, 2018, to November 9, 2023, with peak strandings from December 2018 to December 2020. The most recent gray whale population estimate, based on counts of southbound whales during the winter of 2023/2024, is approximately 17,400 to 21,300 whales.

Historical Background

On February 14, 2005, NOAA Fisheries received a request from the Makah Tribe for a limited waiver of the MMPA moratorium on the 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, in addition to authorizing the making and sale of handicrafts created from the harvested whales.

On April 5, 2019, NOAA Fisheries published a proposed rule to issue a waiver under the MMPA and proposed regulations governing the hunting of Eastern North Pacific gray whales by the Makah Tribe for a 10-year period. At this time, the agency also published a related notice of hearing before an administrative law judge to consider the waiver and proposed regulations. In November 2019, a public hearing led by an administrative law judge took place in Seattle, Washington.

On September 23, 2021, the judge’s recommended decision was transmitted to NOAA Fisheries along with the hearing transcript and other required documentation. These documents—and public comments on them—informed the agency’s final decision on the Makah Tribe’s waiver request.

More information about the Makah Tribe’s request for a limited waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act moratorium on the take of gray whales—including a flowchart—is available on the NOAA Fisheries’ website, as well as a historical chronology leading up to this milestone.

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