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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


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


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.  Their recommendations will be submitted to the ASW Sub-committee, and in turn to the Commission at its next meeting in 2016. Click here to read their report.

Click here for current strike/catch limits.