Aboriginal subsistence whaling

The international community recognises the rights of certain aboriginal peoples to hunt a limited number of whales to meet nutritional and cultural needs. Over the last few years certain aboriginal subsistence whaling communities have abused the definition by allowing whale meat to enter the commercial exchange chain, with whale meat being sold to tourists. This has allowed for a blurring of the definition which has simply assisted commercial whaling interests to advance their arguments to be allowed to resume commercial whaling.

The International Whaling Commission implemented a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1986. However, the international community has a longstanding policy of allowing certain indigenous peoples to hunt otherwise protected whales to satisfy aboriginal subsistence needs. As the IWC itself declares on its website in discussing Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

In several parts of the world native peoples are dependent on whale products for survival.

Despite this, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, which established the IWC, contains no definition of the key terms, including “aboriginal”, “aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW)” or “needs”. Consequently, and also as a result of the IWC not implementing a management regime for these hunts, the establishment of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling quotas and the operation of these hunts remain controversial issues for the IWC.

Current situation

The ICRW does not allow for the allocation of ASW quotas to specific aboriginal people; it sets quotas on relevant stocks from which indigenous groups whose needs have been recognized by the IWC can take whales. A government seeking an ASW quota must submit a “needs statement” (no specification or terms of reference for this document is provided by the IWC and, in fact, St Vincent has never provided such a statement in support of its aboriginal quota). The Scientific Committee assesses the status of the stocks and, based on a mathematical calculation specific to that population or species, advises if the catch limit is safe. The Commission must then decide by three-quarter majority whether to set the catch limit requested. Notably, several of the whale populations currently subject to Aboriginal Whaling would probably not be considered suitable candidates for a commercial hunt and the IWC uses a less precautionary catch calculation method to set ASW quotas than it would for commercial quotas. Essentially, when weighing human need against the survival of the stock, the IWC gives a greater emphasis to human need in ASW than commercial hunts. It is therefore vital for the whales that aboriginal whaling is well managed by the IWC to avoid abuse of this category.

The Commission has begun developing an Aboriginal Whaling Management Scheme (AWMS). Like the better known Revised Management Scheme (RMS) for commercial whaling that has long been under consideration by the IWC, the AWMS has two components: the quota setting mechanism which has now been developed for almost all the stocks concerned and a supervision and control scheme to establish how ASW will be managed in the future. Unsatisfactorily, the IWC has made, in the last decade, no progress on the latter, including how to document and evaluate needs and ensure compliance with catch limits and reporting requirements.

Recent Quotas and kills

The IWC has historically set ASW quotas in five year blocks, but since the IWC now meets every two years, has moved to six year blocks. The previous quotas set in 2008 expired in 2012 and were up for renewal in July 2012 at the IWC annual meeting in Panama. Canada sets its own quotas and the federal government raised the number of bowhead whales that can be hunted each year in Nunavut to three in May 2012.

In July 2012, the IWC issued new quotas for the Russian Federation, the USA and Bequians of St Vincent and the Grenadines. The IWC rejected a proposal from Denmark on behalf of the hunters of Greenland, after Denmark refused to accept an amendment to their quota request, and in pushing their inflated proposal to a vote, lost the whole quota from the end of 2012.

The IWC Quotas for 2013-2018

Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock of bowhead whales (taken by native people of Alaska and Chukotka) -A total of up to 336 bowhead whales can be landed in the period 2013 - 2018, with no more than 67 whales struck in any year (and up to 15 unused strikes may be carried over each year).

Eastern North Pacific gray whales (taken by native people of Chukotka) - A total catch of 744 whales is allowed for the years 2013 - 2018 with a maximum of 140 in any one year.

Humpback whales taken by St Vincent and The Grenadines - For the seasons 2013-2018 the number of humpback whales to be taken shall not exceed 24.

The IWC Quotas for 2014-2018 (agreed at IWC65 in Slovenia)

The number of fin whales struck from the West Greenland stock in accordance with this sub-paragraph shall not exceed 19 in each of the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018

The number of minke whales from the Central stock shall not exceed 12 in each of the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The number of minke whales struck from the West Greenland stock shall not exceed 164 in each of the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The number of bowhead whales struck from the West Greenland shall not exceed in each of the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

The number of Humpback whales struck off West Greenland shall not exceed 10 in each of the years 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Recent ASW Whaling

St Vincent and the Grenadines

Russian Federation


Greenland (Denmark)


WDC has a series of general concerns about the IWC’s management of ASW whaling, as well as specific concerns about individual hunts.

Failure to provide vital scientific data

The Scientific Committee is reliant upon whaling nations to conduct surveys of the whales they hunt and collect data such as DNA samples to help elucidate stock structure and to provide the information needed to set quotas. Failure to provide this data has serious implications. For example, without new survey and genetic data the Scientific Committee could only base its evaluation of the sustainability of Greenland’s fin and minke whale hunts on outdated assessments (from 1987 for fin whale and 1993 for minkes). For years, and with increasing urgency, the Scientific Committee warned the IWC that, without specific information from Greenland, it could not guarantee the sustainability of the hunt, and advised of “potentially serious consequences for the status of the stocks involved”. Greenland repeatedly failed to provide the data until, in 2005, faced with the IWC cancelling its fin whale quota, it volunteered to reduce its hunt to 10 whales (from 19) in the last two years of the block quota. Finally in 2006, it provided enough data for the Scientific Committee to resolve new population estimates for both species.

Strike and landing limits

As the table above shows, ASW quotas are expressed inconsistently. After many years of campaigning by WDC, other NGOs and some conservation led countries, a strike limit is now set, meaning that once that number of whales have been hit with a harpoon (or rifle in the case of Greenland), hunting must stop, regardless of how many were landed. For other hunts, a landing limit is set. WDC is concerned that landing (or ‘take’) limits do not provide strong incentives for hunters to land all the whales that they strike. This has serious conservation implications (for example, during the 2001 Alaskan bowhead hunt, 26 whales were struck and lost). It also raises significant welfare concerns. A wide range of wounds can be inflicted by harpoons and rifles - from lacerations to soft tissue, organ or bone damage, and loss of flippers and flukes. Injured whales that do not die within hours or days may still be prevented by their wounds from functioning normally, including communicating, migrating, feeding and reproducing, and may die a premature death as a result of infection, starvation, or predation. The Bequian quota is set at number of whales ‘taken’ and this should be changed to struck to be consistent with best practice.

Who qualifies?

The IWC provides no complete definition of the word ‘aborigines’ although it is assumed through practice to refer to native or indigenous people. The IWC permits contracting governments to nominate those whom they consider applicable. Even though the IWC has been clear on what they regard as those who should benefit from aboriginal subsistence hunts there is no formal requirement that they meet any definition agreed in wider international law based on cultural or anthropological parameters.

Paragraph 13a of the Schedule to the Convention describes the aim of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW) as “catch limits for aboriginal whaling to satisfy aboriginal subsistence need”.  In 1982 the IWC Working Group noted that,

'Aboriginal/subsistence whaling means whaling, for purposes of local aboriginal consumption, carried out by or on behalf of aboriginals, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, social and cultural ties related to a continuing traditional dependence on whaling and on the use of whales.

Local aboriginal consumption means the traditional uses of whale products by local aboriginal, indigenous or native communities in meeting their nutritional, subsistence and cultural requirements. The term includes trade in items which are by-products of subsistence catches’ [Emphasis added].

Also, at the 36th Annual meeting in 1984, the ASW Sub-committee provided guidelines on the format and content of needs documentation. These guidelines, which the Commission agreed provided “a useful checklist of information to be provided in considering aboriginal/subsistence whaling”, sought details such as “role of whale products as food in the community/importance of whale products in the traditional diet” and “number in each whaling community”. This emphasis arguably reflects the IWC’s intent that the human population whose needs are being considered is the whaling community, not the population at large

Both Norway and Japan have taken advantage of the lack of a formal definition to try to blur the distinction between subsistence and commercial whaling by making applications on behalf of those engaged in ‘small type whaling’. St Vincent and the Grenadines, whose whaling operation is the remnant of a post-colonial commercial ‘Yankee’ whaling operation from the late 1800s, has secured a quota for the inhabitants of one of its islands (Bequia) although they are not pre-colonial firstpeople.

Of course any definition is now openly abused as we see in Greenland but, increasingly also in other countries if this 2012 comment on the Alasakan Dispatch Website can be taken as true.

Statement by non-native Alaskan about eating Bowhead whale

What is “need”?

Traditionally, the IWC has taken a twin approach in considering ASW applications; requiring to be satisfied that applicants have demonstrated both a nutritional/subsistence need for whale meat, and a cultural (i.e. traditional) reliance upon it. Historically, the Schedule specified that whales can only be taken by those “whose traditional aboriginal subsistence and cultural needs have been recognised” (our emphasis). Unfortunately, this language was not carried forward when quotas were amended in 2002. WDC believes that the previous twin approach, that highlighted the importance of nutritional need, should be re-examined.


In the majority of ASW cases, biological or nutritional need (i.e. the need for physical sustenance) is met or supplemented by other locally-sourced foods (including small cetaceans and other marine mammals) or increasing ‘imports’ of non-local, sometimes ‘western’ food. Thus, to justify a continued claim for an ASW quota, WDC believes that claimants should have to show something more – that their continued nutritional reliance on whales over alternatives is part of their traditional culture. WDC believes that when assessing subsistence need, the IWC should have all the relevant facts before it, including, at least, what takes of small cetaceans are being consumed by these communities in addition to the big cetacean takes proposed. Before making a judgment to allow a hunt on a potentially endangered species the Commission must be able to make an assessment of the relative impact of not granting a quota verses the risk of hunting on such endangered populations


It would seem self-evident that a so-called subsistence quota should not countenance any commercial elements. However, in Greenland, once the hunting crew and boat owner have taken their share of the whale, the rest is sold to a state-owned company that processes (packages and freezes) it for distribution all over the territory, including through supermarkets. Increased evidence appears to be coming to light of narwhal that have been killed solely for their tusks, the fabled ‘unicorn horn’. The mixing of commercial and nutritional needs clouds the ability to make an appropriate assessment of the real nutritional needs of these communities.

Local consumption

All the ASW allocations require “the meat and products of such whales …to be used exclusively for local consumption”, although the Greenland and St Vincent quota do not require the consumption to be by the “aborigines”. As a result, the widely distributed whale meat distributed in Greenland can be consumed by all residents, not necessarily just the Inuit population. WDC has exposed the fact that whale meat is also available to tourists. Whale meat has It is also exported to Denmark for the non-commercial use of Greenlanders living there. The IWC does not formally define “local”, but an IWC panel suggested in 1980 that it be defined as “the barter, trade, or sharing of whale products in their harvested form with relatives of the participants in the harvest, with others in the local community or with persons in locations other than the local community [with] whom local residents share familial, social, cultural, or economic ties…”. However, this definition was never formally adopted by the IWC.


WDC believes that the IWC should apply two criteria in respect of culture to its assessments of ASW claims: Whaling must be central to the culture of the claimants and they must have a long and uninterrupted history of whaling. This was a point of controversy in repeated applications by the US in the 1990s for the Makah tribe of Washington State to hunt gray whales. Although the Makah tribe had a US treaty right to whale, at that time they had not done so for over 70 years and many IWC member states argued that a continuing tradition could not be claimed. Many IWC members still do not believe that the claim of the Makah has been recognised by the IWC and is therefore, not endorsed by the international community.

Welfare Issues

The IWC recognises that killing methods used in ASW hunts are typically less efficient than those used in commercial whaling operations, often leading to higher struck and lost rates and longer times to death. The IWC has passed several resolutions seeking improvements in the humaneness of aboriginal subsistence whaling operations.

There are serious concerns about the efficiency of some methods used in aboriginal subsistence hunts, particularly the use of underpowered rifles in Greenland as a primary killing method for some minke whales and as a back-up (secondary) killing method for the much larger fin whales. However, the IWC leaves the decision about which equipment to use to the discretion of the hunters.

Hunting data are shared at annual working groups and advice about techniques and equipment is provided by experts during regular technical Workshops. However, in many cases, the information provided by Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling nations is incomplete or not based on consistently applied criteria. For example, Greenland’s hunters use the same harpoon on the same species (minke whale) as Norway, but apply different criteria for judging the onset of death or insensibility - making it difficult to draw useful conclusions from a comparison of their techniques. Furthermore, Greenland does not collect welfare data for each whale landed, making a full comparative analysis of its different killing methods for the same species impossible. For example, in 2006, Greenland reported the time to death data for only 13% of minkes it killed with rifles (the less effective killing method), while it reported data for 94% of minkes killed with the more efficient harpoons.

Blurring the lines

It has long been a strategy of the proponents of commercial whaling that they wish to blur the lines in the minds of the public between what is Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling and commercial whaling. The recent attempts at secure a ‘compromise’ deal on Japanese whaling are one case in point. WDC believes that this technique to try to circumvent the IWC is highly inappropriate and unethical.

ASW claims should be judged on their merits wherefore the IWC determines such claims have a legitimate basis in fact. However, where aboriginal peoples seek to ally themselves with commercial interests they should be prepared for the IWC to not look so favourably on their requests.

The failure of Greenland to obtain a quota in 2012

Following revelations by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) of the wide-spread commercial sale of whale meat in Greenland to tourists, increasingly concerned IWC Member States reacted by refusing to grant Greenland any increase in its hunt of large whales for so-called aboriginal subsistence needs. Indeed, in a procedural failure, Denmark failed to get any quota approved at all.

Greenland was seeking to increase the number of endangered fin and humpback whales it kills for the subsistence needs of its native people for the next six years, but the undercover operation conducted by WDC and AWI exposed how Greenland has been actively undermining the IWC’s ban on commercial whaling by openly selling whale meat in the vast majority of its restaurants and also in supermarkets.

The EU offered to amend Denmark’s proposal, but Denmark refused, demanding that its original proposal was voted on immediately. The final IWC vote was 25 in favour, and 34 against, 3 abstained. Failure to obtain the 3/4 majority meant that the proposal was rejected.
Criticism of Greenland was led by the Latin block of countries who pointed out there was little difference between what Greenland was doing in feeding whales to tourists and that practiced by commercial whaling operations.
Claims by Denmark on behalf of Greenland that they would not stop selling whale meat to tourists and that Greenland’s whalers could use baseball bats to kill whales if they wanted to, did little to endear Greenland to the rest of the IWC.
The European Union originally struggled to come to a position due to ongoing confusion over its internal decision making processes. WDC worked extensively with the EU Commission to give guidance to the EU Member States and eventually, EU Members who shared WDC’s concern that Greenland’s whaling was not in fact properly regulated aboriginal subsistence whaling, forced an internal vote on the Danish proposal. This resulted in the EU voting in a block in an attempt to amend the Danish proposal.

Denmark was fully aware of the EU position as well as the strong opposition amongst other members of the IWC, so in pushing their original proposal, they knew it was bound to fail and so rob the actual aboriginal subsistence hunters of Greenland's remote communities of an IWC quota.

In 2014, further to threats from Denmark that it would leave the IWC if the EU Commission did not support its proposals, Greenland secured a new quota for the period 2014-2018.