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 Scientific advice on Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

Scientific advice on the sustainability of proposed hunts is provided by the IWC’s Scientific Committee and specifically through its Standing Working Group on aboriginal subsistence whaling.

This working group was established in 1995 and its task is to develop long-term methods of providing scientific advice to the Commission on safe catch limits for aboriginal subsistence whaling operations, taking into account scientific uncertainty, and meeting the management objectives of the Commission.  Its reports are published each year in the Journal of Cetacean Research and Management.

Procedures to provide long-term advice have already been developed for bowhead whales hunted by the USA and Russia (adopted by the Commission in 2002) and gray whales taken by Russia and potentially also by the USA (adopted by the Commission in 2004).  A safe interim procedure for providing advice for the Greenland hunts was adopted by the Commission in 2008, for a ten year period.  Work to develop long-term procedures for those hunts is underway.

The provision of scientific advice requires knowledge of the status of the populations concerned.  This includes information on population identity, abundance and trends in abundance.  Testing possible methods for determining catch limits that meet the Commission’s objectives is undertaken using computer simulations of whale populations in the face of hunting over a 100 year period.  These simulations take into account plausible levels of uncertainty in a large number of factors including our knowledge of whale population structure, abundance and trends, historic and future catch levels, reproduction, survivorship and environmental conditions. An important component of the Standing Working Group is receiving and reviewing scientific information on these factors and ensuring that appropriate levels of uncertainty are incorporated into the testing procedure.

Not all whales struck by hunters are able to be brought ashore.  As a conservative approach, it is assumed that all struck whales die, although this might not be the case.  The method to calculate safe catches is called a Strike Limit Algorithm (SLA).  An SLA is developed for each hunt and species.  The two fully agreed SLAS so far are known as the Bowhead SLA and the Gray Whale SLA.

Although SLAs are intended for long-term use, regular (usually 5/6 year) reviews are undertaken to ensure that no new information has been obtained to suggest further testing is required.  These are called Implementation Reviews.  Recent reviews of Bowhead and Gray whale SLAs have not suggested any need for further testing with respect to existing hunts.  However proposals for a potential gray whale hunt by the Makah tribe on the west coast of the USA prompted an additional Implementation Review, to take into account possible catching of a small Pacific Coast feeding group. This was completed in 2013.

SLAs for the Greenlandic hunts are more complex because of the stock structure issues for the whales hunted by Greenlanders (common minke, fin, bowhead and humpback). A major current focus of the Standing Working Group is the development of long-term SLAs for each of the Greenlandic hunts, and possibly the integration of these to provide advice for a multispecies hunt.