Aboriginal whaling

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Inuit subsistence whaling. A Beluga whale is flensed for its maktaaq (skin), an important source of vitamin C.[1]

Aboriginal whaling is the hunting of whales by aboriginal groups. It is permitted under international regulation, but in some countries remains a contentious issue. (The hunting of smaller cetaceans is covered at Dolphin drive hunting.) [2]

International regulation[edit]

Under the terms of the 1986 moratorium on whaling, the International Whaling Commission allows whaling carried out by aboriginal groups if it occurs on a subsistence basis, known as Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling. Whaling of this type is restricted to native peoples and others working on their behalf, as defined by the IWC.[3]

The IWC says that:[4]

Since its inception, the IWC has recognised that indigenous or ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling is of a different nature to commercial whaling. It is thus not subject to the moratorium. This is reflected in the different objectives for the two types of whaling. For aboriginal subsistence whaling the objectives are to:
  • ensure that risks of extinction are not seriously increased by whaling;
  • enable native people to hunt whales at levels appropriate to their cultural and nutritional requirements (also called ‘need’); and
  • move populations towards and then maintain them at healthy levels.

In order for a country to carry out a hunt under the aboriginal group clause, the nation must provide the IWC with evidence of "the cultural and subsistence needs of their people." In particular, the hunt is not intended for commercial purposes and the caught meat cannot be exported.[5]

United States whaling[edit]

Alaska beluga harvest in 2007

In the United States whaling is carried out by Alaska Natives from many communities in Alaska. The whaling programme is managed by the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission which reports to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The commission includes eleven whaling communities who inhabit the Arctic Alaska coast: the Gambell, Savoonga, Wales, Little Diomede, Kicalina, Point Hope, Point Lay, Wainwright, Barrow, Nuiqsut, and Kaktovik.[6]

In 2016 Alaska Natives caught 428 beluga whales, and 44 bowhead whales (commercial fisheries also caught 8 humpback whales, 2 orcas and 2 sperm whales).[7] Annual catches vary between 300 and 500 belugas.

The hunt takes the bowhead whales from a population of about 10,000 in Alaskan waters. Anti-whaling groups claim this hunt is not sustainable, though the IWC Scientific Committee, the same group that provided the above population estimate, projects a population growth of 3.2% per year. The hunt also took an average of one or two gray whales each year until 1996. The quota was reduced to zero in that year due to concerns about sustainability.[8]

According to federal law, the Makah people of Washington State are entitled to hunt and kill one baleen whale, typically a gray whale, each year, though archeological records and oral history indicate a significant number of humpback whales were hunted as well. The Makah ended their whaling practices in the 1920s, but notified the U.S Government of their wish to reassert their whaling rights in 1995. The first Makah whale hunt in 70 years occurred on May 17, 1999, when they caught a north Pacific gray whale.[9]

Russian whaling[edit]

Russians of Chukotka Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Far East are permitted to take up to 140 Gray Whales from the North-East Pacific population each year.

Canadian whaling[edit]

Bowhead whale caught in Igloolik, Nunavut in 2002.

Canada left the IWC in 1982 and as such is not bound by the moratorium. Whaling is carried out by various Inuit groups in the Canadian Arctic in small numbers and is managed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

Caribbean whaling[edit]

Some whaling is conducting from Grenada, Dominica and Saint Lucia. Species hunted are the Short-finned Pilot Whale, Pygmy Killer Whale and Spinner Dolphins. Throughout the Caribbean, around 400 Pilot Whales are killed annually with the meat being sold locally. This hunting of small cetaceans is not regulated by the IWC.

Whales are hunted in Bequia, the second largest of the Grenadines.[10] Natives of Bequia are allowed to catch up to four humpback whales per year using only traditional hunting methods of hand-thrown harpoons in small, open sailboats. The limit is rarely met, with no catch some years.[11] Its classification as aboriginal, and therefore permissable, is highly contested. In the 2012 .meeting of the IWC, dlegates from several anti-whaling countries, and environmental groups, spoke out aginst it, calling it "artisanal whaling out of control,"[10]

Indonesian whaling[edit]

Lamalera, on the south coast of the island of Lembata, and Lamakera on neighbouring Solor are the last two remaining Indonesian whaling communities. The hunters have religious taboos that ensure that they use every part of the animal. About half of the catch is kept in the village; the rest is traded in local markets, using barter. The whale hunts are carried out in a traditional manner, with bamboo spears and small wooden outriggers, 10–12m long and 2m wide, constructed without nails and with sails woven from palm fronds. The animals are killed by the harpooner leaping onto the back of the animal, from the boat, to drive in the harpoon.

The people of Lamalera hunt several species of whales, primarily sperm whales (the baleen whale is taboo), and in the peak year of 1969 caught 56 sperm whales. In addition to whales, dolphins, manta rays, turtles and several species of sharks are also hunted. In 1973, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization sent a whaling ship and a Norwegian master whaler, to modernize the hunt. This effort lasted three years, and was not successful. According to the FAO report, the Lamalerans "have evolved a method of whaling which suits their natural resources, cultural tenets and style."[12][13]

The World Wildlife Fund has carried out surveys in the village to determine that the limited hunting does not endanger world whale stocks or other endangered species.

Issues that threaten aboriginal whaling rights[edit]

Commercial whaling and poachers hunt whales in large quantities and sell them illegally. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) does not allow the hunting of any whales except for aboriginal subsistence whaling and scientific whaling, which have catch limits to maintain the conservation of whales.[14] These groups must report their hunts and the number of whales killed in order to track the population of whale species and conservation. Hunting illegally means the kills are not reported, which makes it difficult to maintain population numbers and conservation.


  1. ^ Geraci, Joseph; Smith, Thomas (June 1979). "Vitamin C in the Diet of Inuit Hunters From Holman, Northwest Territories" (PDF). Arctic. 32 (2): 135–139. 
  2. ^ "Whale Wars Aboriginal Whaling a Double Standard?". Animal Planet. 2012-05-15. Retrieved 2018-01-31. 
  3. ^ "Aboriginal substance whaling". About Whales and Dolphins. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 
  4. ^ "Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling". International Whaling Commission. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  5. ^ "Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling in the Arctic". iwc.int. Retrieved 2018-01-31. 
  6. ^ "Alaska Coast Whaling Commission". Alaska Coast Whaling Commission. Retrieved 4 May 2016. 
  7. ^ Fisheries, NOAA (2018-02-13). "Marine Mammal Stock Assessment Reports by Region". www.fisheries.noaa.gov. Retrieved 2018-04-07. 
  8. ^ "Catch Limits". International Whaling Commission. International Whaling Commission. Retrieved May 8, 2016. 
  9. ^ "Chronology of Major Events Related to Makah Tribal Gray Whale Hunt". NOAA Fisheries. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved May 8, 2016. 
  10. ^ a b Black, Richard (2012-07-03). "Indigenous whaling bids granted after 'racism' claim". BBC. 
  11. ^ Hamaguchi, Hisashi (2013). "Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling in Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines" (PDF). Senri Ethnological Studies. 84: 137–154. [permanent dead link]
  12. ^ Bruemmer, Fred (October 2001). "Sea hunters of Lamalera". Natural History. (subscription required)
  13. ^ "Lamalera". Incito Tour. Archived from the original on 28 July 2014. Retrieved 20 March 2014. 
  14. ^ "Whaling". International Whaling Commission. International Whaling Commission. Retrieved May 8, 2016.