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Indian tribe gets OK to resume whaling

Makah whale hunting

In this story:

October 23, 1997
Web posted at: 9:28 p.m. EDT (0128 GMT)

MONACO (CNN) -- The International Whaling Commission Thursday approved a controversial proposal to allow native groups in Siberia, Alaska, and Washington State to resume hunting gray whales.

The Makah Indians, a 2,000-member tribe who live on the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula, lobbied with U.S. government support to resume whaling after a seven-decade halt of what they consider a central part of tribal culture.

The Makah had petitioned for approval to hunt five whales a year; the IWC granted permission for an annual take of four whales.

Inuit tribes in Alaska and Chukchi natives along the Siberian coast of the Bering Sea will also split a take of up to 120 gray whales. The whales, which migrate annually between the Arctic and Baja California, have been upgraded from "endangered" to "threatened" status in recent years as a result of a ban on commercial killing of gray whales enacted in the 1930s.

The commission is also expected to renew an ongoing request for a small take of bowhead whales, an animal native to the Arctic that remains highly endangered.

The IWC allows limited whaling by some native groups that can successfully demonstrate that whaling is done for cultural and subsistence reasons, and not for the commercial sale of whale meat.

Makahs hunted off the Washington coast

The IWC's annual meeting this week will also consider proposals to continue hunting of the minke whale by Japan and Norway. The minke is the only large whale species that has not been severely reduced or endangered by overhunting in the past.

Whaling by U.S. Indians opposed

Environmental groups and some of Washington's traditional allies such as Australia and New Zealand argued that the Makah, who have not hunted whales in more than 70 years, can no longer claim to subsist on whale meat.

They also criticized the United States for twinning its request with that of the impoverished Chukchi Inuit of Siberia, known in Russia as the Chukchi, and insisted on amending the final text to state that the quota was for natives whose subsistence needs had been recognized.

"The United States does believe the Makah meet the requirements," U.S. delegate Will Martin told reporters.

"When the commission adopted the quota, they gave tacit recognition of the underlying need," he said.

New Zealand Commissioner Jim McLay said he believed natives should hunt whales "only when a need has been recognized, not just put forward. I don't feel the Makah case has been made."

Indian whaling defended

IWC officials said the organization did not pass judgment on the Makahs' claim, neither recognizing it, nor rejecting it. "Our main concern remains the responsibility and viability of the (whale) stocks," said IWC chairman Peter Bridgewater.

"Who takes them is really up to the people interested," he said.

"This is one of those splendid compromises where people can put their own interpretations," said one delegate. He said it also avoided making a precedent.

Other delegates said they were confident that the Makahs' claim would be put to a harder test in the United States. Many U.S. politicians oppose the government's decision to seek a quota and environmental groups are challenging it in court.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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