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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. 

In summary, the IWC objectives for  management of aboriginal subsistence whaling are to ensure that hunted whale populations are maintained at (or brought back to) healthy levels, and to enable native people to hunt whales at levels that are appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements in the long term.

Click here to read more about IWC objectives for management of aboriginal subsistence whaling


The three objectives for management of Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, as adopted by the IWC in 1981:

  • 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 of 'subsistence use' acknowledges that barter and trade will involve currency, but specifies that the majority of whale products (known as the 'predominant portion') should be used within the local community, guarding against any accusations of commerciality.  However there is no definition of 'predominant portion.' 

The Commission has also acknowledged the difficulty in obtaining a set of definitions that apply equally to each hunt.  There are currently four places where aboriginal subsistence hunts take place (Alaska, Chukotka, Greenland and Bequia).  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 for the Commission.

In 2011, the IWC established a long-term working group to consider these and other matters in order to assist the Commission in considering aboriginal subsistence whaling and setting appropriate catch limits.  

Click here to read more about the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling Working Group


The Ad Hoc Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling Working Group

The primary aim of the group is to identify and consider unresolved ASW issues, including those identified in the 2011 report of the ASW Sub-committee, with a view to recommending steps forward for consideration by that sub-committee. 


The complex range of issues under consideration includes: standardising needs statements; removing ASW catches from political discussion; changing the term 'aboriginal' in ASW; obtaining adequate information for ASW catch limits; issues related to local consumption v commercialism; improving operational efficiencies and improving the welfare of the hunt.


The group is comprised of the four ASW member countries (Denmark, Russia, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the United States, and four other IWC member countries (Argentina, Austria, Japan, and Switzerland).  Two members of the IWC Scientific Committee (from Australia and Norway) are also members of the group, as well as the IWC Secretariat Head of Science.


You can read the full Terms of Reference for the ASW Working Group here.


You can read the first report of the ASW Working Group to the ASW Sub-committee (2012) here.


You can read the 2014 report of the ASWWG expert workshop here.


You can read the 2016 report to the ASW Sub-committee here.


The next meeting of the ASWWG will take place in Alaska in April 2018.  You can read more about this meeting here.


As part of this ongoing work, an expert workshop was held in Greenland in 2015.  The workshop was paid for by the Voluntary Fund for Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling, a relatively new IWC fund for voluntary contributions to ASW-related work.  Specialists in cultural and nutritional anthropology, social science, biology and human rights law joined hunters from each of the IWC's four ASW hunts, and other stakeholders to discuss ASW management practice and the wider global context.  Click here to read their report.

Click here for current strike/catch limits.