Makah Tribe moving closer to whaling rights

Public comment period open now


The Makah Tribe of Neah Bay is closer than ever to regaining the whaling rights guaranteed by an 1855 Treaty with the Territory of Washington.

The Makah began litigating their case in 2005, and as of this fall, an administrative law judge is reviewing their request for a waiver to the Marine Mammal Protection Act so they can resume traditional hunting of the gray whale.

In 1855 The Makah signed a treaty with the U.S. that guaranteed them “the right of taking fish and of whaling or sealing,” and $30,000 in exchange for 300,000 acres of ancestral land.

The Makah are the only continental U.S. tribe with whaling rights explicitly protected in a federal government treaty.

Chief of the Waatch Village of the Makah Tribe Walter McQuillen shared the ancient story of his people’s connection to the animal Friday night at the Maritime Center.

He spoke of the story, which has been passed down through his family for thousands of years. It  describes a marriage between an ancestor and a whale.

Years later when the Makah fell on hard times and were facing starvation, the story goes that the whale, knowing the songs of the Makah and recognizing them as their family, came to them and agreed to lay down their lives to provide sustenance for the people as long as the Makah agreed to protect them in turn and appreciate the sacrifice.

“Someone asked me, ‘How can you kill your family?’” McQuillen said through tears. “I am not killing my family, they are coming to me. I love them and they love me.”

The public is invited to comment on the proposal that would allow the Makah to become the only Native American tribe in the United States to resume gray whale hunting.

Comments are being accepted by the National Marine Fisheries Service through March 16 on the proposal, which would waive the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s moratorium on marine mammal harvesting for the Makah Tribe.

At the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners meeting on Feb. 24, McQuillen asked for the commissioners’ partnership to write a letter of support for the whaling rights.

“We’ve been neighbors for 58 years,” said McQuillen, who lives in Port Townsend. “I ask today …  if you’d consider writing a word of support to help preserve what is ours.”

Commission Chair Greg Brotherton said he hopes the board will work together to help support the treaty rights of the Makah Tribe.

“It’s really important, not just because of a treaty right, that we help our Native neighbors preserve their traditions,” added Commissioner Kate Dean.

This comes after a November administrative trial in which testimony was given by the Makah Tribe and animal welfare scientists who oppose the move.

A spring time 2019 preliminary recommendation by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggested allowing three whale kills in even-year hunts and one in odd-year hunts beginning in 2020 over a 10-year period.

The last legal whale hunt in the U.S. took place in Neah Bay in 1999 after tribal members lobbied for the removal of the gray whale from the federally protected list of endangered species and was granted the right to hunt again.

Anna Brady, an attorney with Ziontz Chestnut, the law firm representing the tribe, grew up in Port Townsend and remembers the 1999 hunt.

Quoting a tribal member who spoke at the November hearing Brady said, “‘It’s not just food, it’s a spiritual need,’ and I would add that it is a legal right.”

After the comment period is over, the public will have one additional opportunity to submit comments before a final decision is reached.

The public is invited to submit comments online at by searching “makah whale.”

Comments can also be mailed to Steve Stone, NMFS West Coast Region, 1201 NE Lloyd Blvd., Suite 1100, Portland, OR 97232-1274. Include the identifier “NOAA-NMFS-2019-0037” in the comments.

Leader reporter Lily Haight contributed to this report.