Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling (ASW)

Not Always What the Name Implies

More than 8,000 whales have been killed by ASW since 1985.

Quotas of whale species, determining how many whales may be hunted by nations engaging in ASW, are issued by the IWC in five year increments. This year, ASW quotas for bowhead, gray, fin, minke, humpback and bowhead whales, to be hunted by groups from the U.S., Greenland, Russia, St. Vincent and The Grenadines, are up for renewal.

The United States is pushing strongly for these quotas. However, this U.S. “pro-whaling” position is of concern, as it may become a political bargaining chip in the ongoing fight at the IWC about whether whaling should be legitimized around the world.


The United States, Greenland, the Russian Federation, St Vincent and The Grenadines engage in whaling, under the name of “aboriginal subsistence whaling” (ASW).

Other nations that currently participate in what they call “subsistence whaling” or have an expressed a wish to participate, include Tonga, the Philippines, Indonesia, Canada and Equatorial Guinea.

This type of whaling is not always what people envision. For example:

  • A significant amount of skin and attached blubber of Beluga and Narwhal whales killed by hunters in Greenland is sold in stores. Most Narwhal tusks are sold to visitors or to shops within Greenland for eventual export. 
  • Greenland hunters kill minke whales by surrounding them in small motorboats and shooting them with high-powered rifles. 
  • Whalers in the Grenadines use radios and mirrors to communicate as they hunt whales, and tow the carcasses to shore using power boats. 
  • With the exception of one whale killed in 1999, the Makah Indian tribe has survived without whaling for more than 70 years.

The definition of ASW used by the IWC is “whaling for purposes of local aboriginal consumption carried out by or on behalf of aboriginal, indigenous or native peoples who share strong community, familial, social and cultural ties related to a continuing traditional dependence on whaling and on the use of whales.”  The definition notes that it considers “local aboriginal consumption” to use whale products for “nutritional, subsistence and cultural requirements” as well as trade in “by-products of subsistence catches.”

Some of the key terms in this definition have not been defined or quantified, including the terms “aboriginal,” “indigenous” or “native peoples.” In addition, there has been no qualification of the allowable “trade” in by-products of subsistence catches.  Pacific Whale Foundation believes that new quotas should not be established until these important definitions are finalized. 

Under current IWC regulations, it is the responsibility of national governments to provide the Commission with evidence of the cultural and subsistence needs of their people. The Scientific Committee provides scientific advice on safe catch limits for such stocks.

Pacific Whale Foundation is also concerned that the United States’ push for “aboriginal subsistence whaling” will open the door to Japan and other nations asking to hunt whales in their nearshore waters as a form of “non-commercial” or “subsistence whaling.” For example, Japan has asked for a quota of minke whales that could be taken through coastal community-based whaling.

In particular, Pacific Whale Foundation strongly opposes the United States push for a quota for gray whales to be hunted by the Makah Indian tribe and the Chukotka people of Russia.  Recent scientific evidence shows that the gray whales that would be targeted include genetically distinct species (highly endangered Western Gray Whales) that are critically endangered. The Makah tribe of Washington had one legal whale kill in 1999 and has survived for more than seventy prior years without whaling, clearly demonstrating that whale meat is not needed by the tribe for subsistence. In addition, a final Environmental Impact Statement, as required in a court settlement in 2003 over the Makah’s intention to hunt whales, has not been completed.

Bowhead whales from the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort Seas stock are hunted in the United States by Alaska Eskimos. While we believe the killing of whales is needless and inhumane, and thereby wrong, we acknowledge that the Alaska Eskimos have hunted bowhead whales for several thousands of years and use the whales a food source and also provide baleen and bone for traditional handicrafts. This appears to be more closely aligned with the spirit and intent of “aboriginal subsistence whaling.”