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In some parts of the world, whale products play an important role in the nutritional and cultural life of native peoples.  Four IWC member countries conduct aboriginal subsistence hunts today: Denmark (Greenland), Russia (Chukotka), St Vincent and the Grenadines (Bequia) and the United States (Alaska and also potentially a resumption of hunts previously undertaken by the Makah Tribe of Washington State).

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:

  1. To ensure that the risks of extinction to individual stocks are not seriously increased by subsistence whaling;

  2. To enable aboriginal people to harvest whales in perpetuity at levels appropriate to their cultural and nutritional requirements, subject to the other objectives;

  3. 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.

ASW catch limits are set in multiple-year blocks, most recently at the Commission meeting in September 2018.  The Commission considers information from the Scientific Committee regarding the sustainability of proposed hunts and safe catch limits, and information from the relevant national governments related to the needs of their indigenous people.  This information is made publicly available online in Descriptions of the Hunts which summarise the relevant cultural, subsistence and nutritional information about each hunt, products and distribution. 

  • Click here to read the 2018 Descriptions of the Hunt.
  • Click here to read more about scientific advice on ASW.

At the IWC meeting in September 2018, a number of new initiatives were endorsed in order to facilitate a more straight-forward process when catch limits are next considered at the 2024 meeting of the Commission.

The new initiatives include:

  • a new timetable for sharing information from the hunts, and receiving feedback, maximising discussion time and transparency;
  • agreement that status quo catch limits would be renewed automatically, assuming  a series of agreed steps continue to  be completed;
  • a commitment to establish closer ties with international and inter-governmental organisations focusing on indigenous rights.     

The September IWC meeting also welcomed voluntary funding to support further work to improve the animal welfare aspects of aboriginal subsistence hunts. 

Click here to read about the Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling Working Group

The Ad Hoc Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling Working Group (ASWWG)

In 2018 the Commission was able to endorse a range of proposals regarding the management of ASW in large part due to the efforts of the ASWWG. 


The group was formed in 2012, following difficult Commission discussions on ASW.  The group's task was to identify and consider a complex range of long-standing issues including removing ASW catches from political discussion and questions related to local consumption v commercialism.


The group was chaired by Dr Mike Tillman of the US and 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) were also members of the group, supported by the IWC Secretariat. 


Acknowledging the scale of the challenge and extensive efforts of all members of the group, and paying particular tribute to the leadership of Dr Tillman, the Commission thanked the ASWWG for completing its task in 2018.  


  • 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 2015 report of the ASWWG expert workshop here.
  • You can read the 2018 report of the ASWWG workshop here.
  • Click here for ASW catches since 1986
  • Click here for current Catch Limits for Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling