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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 threefold:

  • To ensure that the risks of extinction to individual stocks are not seriously increased by subsistence whaling;
  • To enable aboriginal people, to harvest whales in perpetuity at levels appropriate to their cultural and nutritional requirements, subject to the other objectives;
  • To maintain the status of whale stocks at or above the level giving the highest net recruitment and to ensure that stocks below that level are moved towards it so far as the environment permits.

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 lack of clarity in some of the Commission’s accepted definitions for aboriginal subsistence whaling. For example, the Commission’s definition for “subsistence use” makes possible the exchange of currency for edible products in their harvested form, provided that the “predominant portion” of the products are ordinarily directly consumed or used within the local community.   An issue, however, is that IWC has never defined “predominant portion”.

Another factor is that 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 their assessment difficult.

An IWC working group is currently considering these and other matters to assist the Commission’s deliberations on aboriginal subsistence whaling and the setting of appropriate catch limits.  To read their latest report click here.

Click here for current strike/catch limits.