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Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

In some parts of the world, whale products play an important role in the nutritional and cultural life of native peoples.

From the outset, the IWC recognised that indigenous or ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling is not the same as commercial whaling. Aboriginal whaling does not seek to maximise catches or profit.  It is categorised differently by the IWC and is not subject to the moratorium.  The IWC recognises that its regulations have the potential to impact significantly on traditional cultures, and great care must be taken in discharging this responsibility.  For aboriginal subsistence whaling the IWC objectives are twofold:

  • ensure that hunts do not seriously increase risks of extinction and that hunted whale populations move to (if they are not already there), and are then maintained at, healthy, relatively high levels;
  • enable native people to hunt whales at levels appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements (known as ‘need’) in the long-term.

It is the responsibility of a national government to provide the Commission with evidence of the needs of their indigenous people.  This is presented in the form of a ‘Needs Statement’ which details the cultural, subsistence and nutritional aspects of the hunt, products and distribution.  The Scientific Committee provides advice on the sustainability of proposed hunts and safe catch limits.  Click here to read more about scientific advice.

The Commission considers the information from both the Needs Statement and the Scientific Committee to decide catch limits for each hunt.  On occasion, the Commission’s assessment of ‘need’ has proved difficult and controversial, and there are a number of possible reasons for this.

Firstly, there is no definition of key terminology, not just in the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, but in international law more generally.  It has never been possible to pin down the concept of ‘aboriginal’ to one rigid and measurable definition.  The same is true of ‘subsistence’  and indeed of ‘need’.

In addition, each hunt is unique, and different factors are more relevant to different communities. The strength or importance of a whaling tradition in the country, remoteness, availability of local foodstuffs, health, climate, entitlement to local food security, and the familial or artisanal nature of the hunt, are some of the many factors that may be considered important.  The methods of hunting  and means of distribution also vary widely.  Put simply, no two indigenous communities are the same and nor are their Needs Statements.  This can make assessment difficult.

Increased use of technology is another potential issue.  Improved technology makes whaling safer, more efficient and more humane, but it may be seen by some to compromise aboriginal authenticity.  The world has undoubtedly changed since 1946 when the Convention was written, but for some this may be difficult to accept in the context of indigenous whaling, even when the result of technological advance is a quicker and more humane killing method. For others, use of the more traditional technology is seen as a problem for the opposite reasons.

Click here for current strike/catch limits.