By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News
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NEAH BAY — A 7-year-old study on the potential environmental impact of Makah whaling is being ditched, the federal government announced.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service and Department of Commerce issued a “notice to terminate” the draft environmental impact statement Monday.
This is the latest development in lengthy legal battles over the Makah tribe's treaty right to hunt whales — and comes only days after the 13th anniversary of a Makah whaling crew legally killing a gray whale off Neah Bay.
The agencies said they will start again, based on new evidence indicating that what opponents call “resident” gray whales off the Washington coast may be a genetically distinct, smaller cetacean subpopulation that needs to be managed — and protected — separately from the overall population of Eastern North Pacific gray whales.
A new study will be prepared in light of “substantial new scientific information,” the notice said.
The new draft environmental impact, which will replace a draft begun in 2005 and completed in 2008, likely will not be completed until 2013, NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said Tuesday.
“I'm sure the Makah are tapping their feet, saying, 'When is this going to end?'” Gorman said.
Tribal Chairman Micah McCarty said Monday the Neah Bay-based tribe may release a prepared statement about the federal notice.
Scrapping the draft EIS may further delay a determination on the tribe's 2005 request for a limited waiver of a whaling moratorium imposed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The waiver would allow the tribe to exercise its right to hunt whales under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay.
The Makah are the only tribe in the United States with a treaty expressly guaranteeing the right to whale. The tribe's whaling tradition dates back at least 1,500 years.
Tribal members voluntarily stopped hunting whales in the late 1920s when they became endangered.
When the animals came off the endangered species list in 1994, the tribe again sought to exercise its right to whale.
On May 17, 1999, Makah tribal members in a cedar canoe successfully harpooned a 30-foot gray — the tribe's first whale in more than 70 years — amid anti-whaling demonstrations.
There was an unsuccessful whale hunt in 2000 before court cases put the tribe's hunts on hold indefinitely.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2002 that in order to hunt again, the tribe needed a waiver from the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The ruling was reaffirmed in 2004.
An illegal hunt in September 2007 resulted in the death of gray whale, federal prison sentences for two Makah tribal members and demands by some wildlife and animal-rights groups that the tribe be forever banned from whaling.
The new federal notice includes five alternatives: no action; waive the moratorium; allow hunting in offshore waters at least 3 miles from shore; a June 1-Nov. 30 hunt only; and an “adaptive management hunt” that would allow flexibility in permit terms, hunting seasons, allowable levels of whales struck and lost, and flexibility in landed whales up to the levels proposed by the tribe.
NOAA's notice “is simply giving more information to the public on how the agency is going to respond to the waiver application,” Seattle attorney Brian Gruber, representing the tribe, said Tuesday.
The notice “does not make any conclusions about any of the science,” he added.
But whaling opponent Margaret Owens of Joyce, a co-founder of Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales, said the new studies prove there are resident whales that ply the Washington coast that must be protected.
“They are genetically distinct, which means those mothers have been bringing their calves here for so many untold generations,” Owens said.
“They are a legitimate subpopulation that needs to be managed separately from the main group,” she said.
New scientific evidence regarding the whale population that would be hunted by the Makah also might force the tribe to reapply for the whaling-moratorium waiver, Gorman said.
The tribe wants to harvest up to 20 gray whales from the Eastern North Pacific gray whale population in any five-year period to a maximum of five whales annually.
But a new feeding group has entered the picture: the Pacific Coast Feeding Group of whales.
It is a subgroup of Eastern North Pacific whales that Gorman said was not known to exist in 2005, when the Makah applied for the waiver.
The Pacific Coast Feeding Group “may warrant consideration as a separate management unit,” the federal notice said.
“More recently, researchers tracking and sampling gray whales discovered that at least some individuals from summer feeding grounds utilized by the endangered western stock migrate across the Pacific and into areas used by [Eastern North Pacific] gray whales,” including in the Makah's usual and accustomed hunting areas, the notice added.
Fewer than 100 western gray whales are known to exist, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Included in the new EIS will be a review of a June 2010 study by Canadian scientists Jim Darling and Tim Frasier, Gorman said.
The study concluded that 200 gray whales that annually feed during the summer in areas that include the Washington coast and Clayoquot Sound off Vancouver Island “have a separate identity” within the approximately 20,000 whales in the Eastern North Pacific group.
DNA tests showed that the offspring of those whales return to feeding grounds visited by their mothers.
“When it comes time to declare a quota, we are going to scream bloody murder,” Owens said, claiming that a subgroup of the approximately 200 resident whales cited by the Darling-Frasier study “is faithful to our waters.”
The federal government gave the Makah permission to hunt, and the tribe received its quota from the International Whaling Commission, whose International Scientific Committee is scheduled to meet this summer and conclude its review of gray whales by June 23, a review that will be considered at the IWC annual meeting that ends July 6.
The new EIS will include information from the IWC meeting and public input.
“We don't know if there are resident whales,” Gorman said, adding that even if there are, the Makah still may be allowed to hunt them.
“We are taking the assertions that this is a resident population seriously, and we will incorporate all of that into our final EIS.”
The federal notice and instructions for commenting on the notice can be found at http://tinyurl.com/d3m4ng5.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.