SEATTLE (AP) — A federal agency has released a study that could open the door for hunting of the North Pacific gray whale by the Makah Indian tribe off the Washington coast.

The draft report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division that was released Friday proposes six options that range from prohibiting the annual hunt for North Pacific gray whales to allowing the harvest of up to 24 whales in a six-year period, the Seattle Times reports.

“This is a first step in a public process . that could eventually lead to authorization for the tribe to hunt gray whales,” said Donna Darm, associate deputy regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in the West Coast region. The gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. NOAA estimates that about 20,000 gray whales roam the North Pacific.

The Makah tribe has historically hunted gray whales for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. The tribe used its treaty rights to take a whale in 1999, but it triggered controversy and lawsuits from whaling opponents. Timothy Greene, chairman of the Makah Tribal Council in Neah Bay, said that through the years of court fights and federal reviews, the tribe’s desire to start whaling again has remained strong.

“We are definitely happy that we have reached this point. It has been a very long process,” Greene said. He added that whaling “is something that is strongly connected to our spiritual existence.”

We’re not going anywhere, and this is important for us and generations to come.”

But the tribe’s whale hunt remains a disturbing prospect for many.

“We recognize the cultural importance of whales to the tribes, and intend no disrespect,” said D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “But whaling is inherently cruel.”

The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2004 that a study was needed for the Makah hunts to comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. That ruling resulted in NOAA’s draft environmental impact statement.

During the study period, the court ruling blocked the Makah from resuming whaling. But in 2007, five Makah whalers carried out an illegal hunt. It took hours from the time shots were first fired until the whale died and sank, according to NOAA Fisheries.

In 2008, NOAA released an earlier draft study on the resumption of whaling. It ended up being withdrawn four years later as new information became available about the Pacific gray whale population. By 2012, there were new concerns about the effects of a hunt on an endangered stock of an estimated 140 gray whales that live in the western Pacific off Asia’s coasts. Satellite tracking showed that some of them journey to the West Coast.

The new draft study includes the latest research on all of the Pacific gray whale stocks. The five alternatives for going forward with a hunt vary in several details, including the timing and location of the hunts and the number of strikes hunters would be allowed each year.

In one alternative, the Makahs could harvest up to five whales in any one year, but no more than 24 over a six-year period. They would also be able to have up to three strikes each year in which their weapons wound a whale but they are unable to bring it to shore.

NOAA will produce a final document with a preferred option. The agency will then decide on whether the hunt can resume and, if so, under what rules.

Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com