A federal hearing began Thursday in Seattle over a proposal for the Makah tribe to hunt gray whales off the Washington coast.
NOAA Fisheries proposes allowing the only tribe in the country with whaling rights enshrined in its treaty to hunt 25 whales over 10 years.
"I'm hopeful, I'm excited, I'm glad to see that this process is moving forward. It's been a long time coming," said Makah Tribal Council Member Patrick DePoe.
The Makah last legally hunted a gray whale in 1999, and tribal members have been wanting for years to resume the hunt.
"The science is there to support us, the moral and legal obligation is there to support a treaty right," DePoe said.
In a hearing expected to extend through all of next week, federal scientists are asking an administrative law judge to recommend a first-ever waiver of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
NOAA Fisheries proposes the Makah be allowed to hunt an average of 2.5 Eastern North Pacific Gray Whales each year.
"Eastern North Pacific stock of gray whales is a very healthy population," NOAA's Chris Yates testified Thursday.
"It's not a matter of numbers, it's a matter of need," said biologist DJ Schubert of the Animal Welfare Institute. "We don't believe the Makah tribe has a need for these gray whales."
Schubert said NOAA should not be proposing a hunt when gray whales are washing up dead on the West Coast for unknown reasons, and at a time when they're losing feeding ground in the Arctic because of climate change.
"A hunt of a whale is inevitably going to be cruel," Schubert said.
The 1999 hunt was tense as activists tried to disrupt it.
On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren weighed in supporting the Makah.
Her campaign told The New York Times the federal government should "honor its agreement" with the tribe.
The administrative law judge is expected to eventually issue a written ruling.
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