NEAH BAY, Wash. (AP) - A group of canoe paddlers planned Saturday to mark the 15-year anniversary of the Makah tribe's last legal hunt for a gray whale.
Wayne Johnson said the Makah Whaling Commission organized the paddle to mark May 17, 1999, when the tribe killed its first whale in decades, the Peninsula Daily News (http://is.gd/uIlemX ) reported. Johnson captained the crew that harpooned and then shot a gray whale off the Washington coast.
The whaling commission said in a statement that it planned a paddle, a feast and a celebration Saturday.
Meanwhile, federal officials are in the process of finalizing an environmental review that could lead to another hunt, the Daily News reported. The tribe is currently seeking authorization from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries agency under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to hunt gray whales for subsistence purposes.
In 2012, NOAA scrapped a 2008 draft environmental impact statement of Makah whaling and began a new draft environmental impact statement, after new scientific information found that a group of gray whales that frequents the Washington coast may be different than the 20,000 whales that migrate past the state each year on their way between Alaskan and Mexican waters.
Donna Darm, associate deputy administrator for the NOAA's west region, said a new statement incorporating that information should be ready for public review by the fall.
"There's been a lot of new science that we received since the 2008 draft," Darm told the Daily News Thursday.
That information will not necessarily affect the tribe's hunt, but it will require that tribal hunters carefully identify what group any future whales they take come from, according to the Daily News.
Whaling is a centuries-old tradition for the tribe at the tip of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The Makah are guaranteed whaling rights under their 1855 treaty with the U.S.
For centuries, the Makah hunted gray whales but stopped hunting in the 1920s after the grays were decimated by commercial whaling. The tribe sought to resume whaling after gray whales were removed from the federal endangered species list in 1994.
The Makah applied in 1995 to again exercise its treaty right to hunt whales, and it killed a 30-foot gray whale during a hunt 15 years ago.
Animal welfare and other groups decried the 1999 killing and later sued to stop the hunts.
Legal challenges then put the whale hunts on hold.
In 2004, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Makah could not obtain a waiver under the Marine Mammal Protection Act until an environmental assessment was prepared.
An illegal whale hunt in 2007 led to the death of gray whale and federal prison sentences for two Makah tribal members, including Johnson.
Information from: Peninsula Daily News, http://www.peninsuladailynews.com