The International Whaling Commission this week unanimously voted to renew the Makah Indian Nation whaling quota, but tribal leaders say they still face an uphill battle before their whalers can return to the sea. The vote was carried out at the annual meeting of the IWC in Anchorage. Under the IWC's quota, the Makah tribe of northwestern Washington can take 20 North Pacific gray whales over the next five years. Tribal leaders, however, say the earliest they expect to whale is 18 months from now, depending on the outcome of an environmental study under way at the National Marine Fisheries Service. "With any luck, we'll be back on the water in early 2009," said Micah McCarty, a tribal councilman who is attending the IWC meeting. The IWC is holding the meeting this week amid whaling protests and a controversial Japanese bid to hunt 50 humpbacks and more than 700 minke whales. Created in 1946 to manage sustainable whaling, the commission has grown divisive in recent years, with about half of the 77 members against most types of whaling. The Makah, a tribe of about 1,500 in Neah Bay, Wash., revived its whaling tradition in 1999 when it landed a Pacific North gray whale off the coast of Washington, its first in more than 70 years. The hunt drew international protests, with some activists claiming the hunt was unnecessary and posed threats to the gray whale population. The North Pacific gray whale was listed as endangered until 1994. But this week, an IWC scientific report said the whales are doing well and that a small hunt such as one by the Makah should pose no harm to the population. The Makah first requested an IWC whaling quota in 1996, and the following year it got approval to hunt 20 gray whales over five years, McCarty said. But after the 1999 hunt, environmental groups filed legal action to block future hunts. A federal court ruled that the Makah must get a waiver from the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which the Makah began to pursue two years ago. The National Marine Fisheries Service is completing a draft environmental impact study on the tribe's whaling wishes. So far, NMFS has received more than 400 comments, said Janet Sears, a spokeswoman for the agency in Seattle. "We're going through a very deliberate process in making our decision," she said, "because it's very controversial, and not just among people in Seattle." The Makah's whaling quota falls under the IWC's aboriginal program, which oversees Eskimos and other traditional whaling communities. Along with the Makah, the IWC renewed a bowhead whaling quota for Eskimos in Alaska and Russia. They can hunt 280 bowheads over the next five years. Also, Russia got permission to hunt up to 620 North Pacific gray whales through 2012. The Makah hope a quota renewal will persuade the U.S. government to approve their whaling proposal. "This shows that there's international support for us, and it further reinforces that our (whaling) is sustainable, based on the IWC's scientific research," McCarty said.