U.S. fisheries officials are asking for public comment on the question of the Makah tribe whale hunt, following a request from the Washington state tribe to take up to five grey whales per year "for ceremonial and subsistence purposes."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, has written a draft report on the environmental impacts of the proposed hunt near the tip of the Olympic peninsula, outside the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
"This is the first step in a public process of considering this request that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt grey whales," said Donna Darm, an official with NOAA Fisheries, in a statement.
The 1200-page report outlines several possible scenarios, ranging from no hunt to taking up to 24 whales over six years. It is open to public comment for 90 days.
The Makah tribe historically hunted grey whales, and have argued the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay protects their right to continue the hunt.
Makah whaling plans 'illegal'
The U.S government's 1998 decision to authorize a hunt angered environmentalists, including the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and its founder, Canadian Paul Watson.
Reached on Monday at his home in France, Watson said his group is already working with lawyers to prevent any whaling from happening in Washington state.
"This is illegal under international law," Watson said.
"Under aboriginal clauses of the international whaling commission you cannot kill whales for aboriginal subsistence purposes, unless there is an unbroken tradition and a proven subsistence necessity, and there's neither in this case. So I think we have a strong case."
Watson thinks it could take up to three years before any whaling activity could begin.
"I think now the public, especially in Washington state, is very much against this," Watson said.
"So there will be a lot of public opposition."
'Spiritually and culturally connected'
Others are already voicing support for the Makah, including the University of Washington's Charlotte Cote.
Cote is an Associate Professor of American Indian Studies and a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation on Vancouver Island.
The Nuu-chah-nulth are related to the Makah, and in 1999, themselves demanded the right to restore their own whaling activity off B.C.'s coast.
"What this basically says is throughout that whole process of looking at the Makah whale hunt, there has never, ever been any study that has demonstrated the hunt would significantly impact the environment, nor hurt the growth of the whale population, the grey whale that migrates along the northwest coast," Cote said.
"This is what NOAA is reaffirming in this study, that we will protect the environment and we will protect those whales because they're more than just something for economies, they are spiritually and culturally connected to us."
NOAA plans to hold public meetings on the issue in April.