Subsistence Whaling

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) allows for whaling on otherwise protected animals when it is conducted by certain indigenous people to satisfy subsistence needs. The rules for aboriginal subsistence whaling (ASW) are contained in paragraph 13 of the Schedule to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) and allow for "aborigines," whose cultural and nutritional need for whales and whaling the IWC has recognized, to hunt some baleen whale species "exclusively for local consumption."

ASW quotas are allocated in five-year blocks based on the advice of the IWC Scientific Committee. ASW is conducted by indigenous people from Greenland, Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Russian Federation, and the United States.

IWC allows for whaling on otherwise protected animals when it is conducted by certain indigenous people to satisfy subsistence needs

Recognizing the need for certain native peoples to harvest whales in order to survive, the Animal Welfare Institute does not comprehensively object to aboriginal subsistence whaling provided that (a) such whaling fulfills a legitimate and continuing subsistence need, (b) such killing is limited to only the number of whales needed, (c) the targeted whale populations can sustain such kills, (d) each whale is fully utilized by those responsible for his/her death, (e) the whaling is conducted using the least cruel techniques available, and (f) continuing efforts are made to reduce the amount of time it takes the whale to die and thus the cruelty of the hunts.

AWI does, however, have grave concerns that the above conditions are not being met by aboriginal subsistence whalers and that the IWC is not adequately managing ASW. The IWC recognizes that the methods used to hunt and kill whales for ASW are less efficient than those used in commercial whaling operations, with the result that (a) times to death are longer, (b) instantaneous death rates are lower, and (c) “struck and lost” rates are higher. The IWC, however, has not been actively working to comprehensively address the situation. Although it has adopted several resolutions seeking improvements in the humaneness of ASW operations, IWC resolutions are not binding on parties.

To date, efforts to improve the welfare of ASW hunts have been ad hoc and undertaken by interested governments rather than through an organized effort by the IWC. Despite the availability of modern weaponry and some training of hunters by more efficient whalers in the US and Norway, outdated equipment and methods are still used. Times to death are difficult to accurately measure, and are not measured using the same criteria by the various whalers. Even with measurements on time to death, it is not uncommon for animals to be reported as taking well over an hour to die. Those animals struck with a harpoon but lost at sea take an unknown length of time to die.

There is hope for progress. At the 63rd IWC meeting in 2011, the US, Denmark and the Russian Federation proposed the establishment of an Ad Hoc working group to investigate improvements to ASW hunts. Progress was reported at IWC meetings in 2012 and 2014, and the work of the group continues.


Subsistence Whaling in Greenland

A self-governed territory of Denmark, Greenland is situated between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Oceans. Denmark is a member of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and nationals of both Denmark and Greenland participate at IWC meetings under Denmark’s flag. Denmark submits a request to the IWC for an ASW quota on behalf of the indigenous people of Greenland. Under this quota, Greenland natives hunt minke, bowhead, fin, and humpback whales.

One of West Greenland’s hunts involves the use of penthrite grenade harpoons as the primary and secondary killing methods. (The secondary killing method is used when the primary method fails to dispatch the whale.) Other West Greenland hunts use either a grenade harpoon or rifle as the primary and always a rifle as the secondary killing method. The whale hunts in East Greenland use only rifles as both the primary and secondary killing methods.

At the June 2012 IWC meeting, Denmark sought not only to renew, but to increase the ASW quota for Greenland natives. In response, many countries raised questions about the extensive commercial use of whale meat in Greenland, concerns that had been brought to light in a joint report by AWI and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Governments also pointed to Greenland’s poor compliance with IWC regulations (see Fall 2012 AWI Quarterly), and urged Denmark to reconsider its request for an increased quota. Despite the concerns raised, Denmark and Greenland refused to compromise and reduce the number of whales sought, even to numbers previously approved by IWC parties. As a result, the entire request was voted down, and when 2012 drew to a close, Greenland’s whaling quotas expired.

In early January 2013, Greenland's Ministry for Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture announced that Greenland self-allocate a whaling quota for 2013 and 2014, and that it planned to take more humpback and fin whales than under its previous IWC quota. Greenland began hunting without an approved IWC quota in the spring of 2013.

In June of 2013, after extensive debate in the Danish Parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it would withdraw from the IWC as of January 1, 2014, unless a solution to Greenland’s lack of an official quota could be found. This announcement was countered by a statement from Greenland’s Ministry of Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture, indicating that Greenland would prefer to remain within the IWC.

A legal analysis commissioned by AWI concluded that Greenland’s action in self-allocating a quota clearly violates the IWC’s treaty, and that the only way Greenland can legally hunt large whales is by securing the IWC's approval. AWI is engaging with colleagues and IWC parties to demand that Denmark and Greenland follow the IWC rules. Greenland’s current hunts can only be considered pirate whaling.

The problems associated with the Greenland hunts are numerous and include:

  • failure to report times to death to the IWC;
  • failure to provide an up-to-date needs statement that fully and quantifiably documents a justification for the nutritional, subsistence and cultural needs of its indigenous people for great whales;
  • an increasing commerciality of the hunts, with whale meat being routinely sold in over 100 supermarkets, and in tourist hotels and restaurants throughout Greenland;
  • the inclusion of the entire population of Greenland (including nonindigenous people) when calculating per capita need for whale meat;
  • the exclusion of small cetacean products that also make up part of the subsistence diet of indigenous Greenlanders, when calculating need for whale meat; and
  • inadequate flensing and processing techniques, resulting in excessive wastage.


Subsistence Whaling in St. Vincent and the Grenadines

The whaling operations of the Bequians of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the Eastern Caribbean are an offshoot of the commercial Yankee whaler hunts, which began in the late 1800s. These whalers taught the locals (who were not pre-colonial first natives) to whale and they have hunted sperm and humpback whales since that time, although now the IWC quota is only for humpback whales.

The current quota for the period 2013-2018 is 24 humpback whales. The Bequians have killed 40 whales since 1986, including two Brydes whales taken illegally.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines has not provided any data to the IWC in recent years on the methods and vessels used in its hunts, nor on recorded times to death, instantaneous death rates, or struck and lost rates.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Bequian whale hunts are perhaps the most brutal of all. Humpback whales are first struck using a cold harpoon (banned by the IWC for commercial whaling in 1980 because of its cruelty), thrown by hand from a boat. Once struck, the animal is brought alongside the vessel. Then an eight-foot lance is repeatedly thrown at the animals in an attempt to puncture the whale’s heart or lungs. Sometimes the whale is finally killed by a "bomb lance" - an exploding projectile discharged from a shoulder gun. In some instances the bomb lance may be used concurrent with the initial cold harpoon. A final killing method also reported is the use of a projectile from a 40-pound bronze shoulder gun or "bomb gun."

Females are traditionally hunted, with whalers targeting calves first (a practice explicitly prohibited by the IWC) in order to lure their mothers to the boat.


Subsistence Whaling in the Russian Federation

The Chukotka people of the Russian Federation’s Far East hunt gray and bowhead whales and other marine mammals. The hunters use a device known as a “darting gun” with a black powder grenade or harpoon to catch the whale. Floats and lines are attached to secure and tag the animal. Spears are also sometimes used and a rifle or darting gun is used to make the kill. These hunts have some of the longest times to death reported to the IWC, with average times reported at around 50 minutes. According to reports, individual whales have taken several hours to die, with some being hit with lances and bullets several hundred times.

Since 1997, the IWC-issued quotas for gray and bowhead whales have been shared between the Russian Federation and the United States and the current quotas are 336 bowhead and 744 gray whales landed, respectively, over the five-year period ending in 2018.

Since record keeping began, 21 bowhead and 3,239 gray whales have been reported struck and landed by Russian natives.

In recent years, the Chukotka people have been finding whales whose flesh and blubber give off strong, pungent odors, making them inedible. The IWC Scientific Committee has been investigating this alarming issue, with no resolution to date. Click here to read a news article about this issue, or view the reports from the 2007 IWC Meeting or 2009 IWC Meeting.


Subsistence Whaling in the United States


Until relatively recently, Alaskan native peoples hunted bowhead whales using a darting gun with a black powder projectile attached to a 35-fathom line with floats attached to tag and identify struck whales, as well as slow them down. The secondary killing method was either a darting gun or smooth bore 7-guage shoulder gun.

Since the 1980s, the Iñupiat have investigated the use of penthrite-loaded projectiles as a more efficient killing method. The method is now used routinely in hunts from Barrow and some of the other 10 villages, though in most of the smaller villages the old methods are used. The US claims that hunting efficiency (the rate of animals landed to animals struck) in the Iñupiat bowhead hunt has improved over the past several decades. Although efficiency had improved by 2010—with a reported 82% efficiency rate—there was a dramatic decline for the following year, with 71 animals struck but only 45 landed (a 63% efficiency rate).

The US does not provide time to death data to the IWC, claiming that it is too dangerous for hunters in a small boat to stay close to a whale following a strike. In 2003, the US reported that it had introduced a new reporting form on which hunters are to record "time to prayer," which is the time to when the hunters feel they can approach the whale without danger.

The Iñupiats hunt under a five-year IWC quota that is shared with the Chukotka people of the Russian Federation. The Alaskan natives have also hunted gray whales in the past. Alaskan natives have struck and landed 1,383 bowhead whales since the moratorium went into effect, as well as seven gray and two minke whales.


The Makah Tribe of Neah Bay, Washington, hunted Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales and other marine mammals for subsistence purposes in times past. The tribe ceased whaling in the 1920s. The ENP gray whale was removed from the US Endangered Species Act’s list of threatened and endangered species. The ENP gray whale, like all marine mammals, is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

In 1996, the Makah Tribe, citing a cultural rather than a subsistence need to whale, and a right under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, appealed to the US government to request an IWC quota for ENP gray whales so that the tribe could recommence whaling. After the Makah’s quota request was combined with that of the Russian Federation, it was approved at the 1998 IWC meeting—despite concerns over the true subsistence needs of the Makah Tribe after a 70-year whaling hiatus.

In May 1999, the Makah hunted and killed a juvenile gray whale. A steel harpoon was thrown from a traditional whaling canoe and, once struck, the whale was shot with a .577 caliber hunting rifle fired from a motorized chase boat. The whale was reported to have been killed within eight minutes, with two shots from the rifle. With few elders available who could remember the ways of the past, a native whaler from Alaska was called in to butcher the whale. Most of the meat and blubber, however, went to waste, as no one remembered how to prepare it for consumption.

A lawsuit—Anderson v. Evans, 371 F.3d 475, 483 (9th Cir. 2004)—was filed against the US Department of Commerce challenging the federal government's approval without first complying with the US National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of whaling by the Makah Tribe. The trial court ruled in favor of the government. Opponents of the hunt appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and, in 2002, won; subsequent hunts were suspended. A further ruling by the Ninth Circuit in 2004 added that the Makah, to pursue any treaty rights for whaling, must comply with the process prescribed in the MMPA for authorizing take of marine mammals otherwise prohibited by a moratorium. The Makah Tribe subsequently requested a waiver of the take moratorium under the MMPA

Despite these rulings, in September 2007, five members of the Makah Tribe killed another gray whale, violating multiple federal laws. A reported 5-10 harpoons and up to 21 bullets were fired into the whale’s body. The whale, thought to be a member of a resident group, took over 10 hours to die. After an investigation by the US authorities and Makah Tribal council, three of the whalers pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of probation and community service. Two others who would not plead were sentenced to three and five months in jail, respectively.

In response to the Makah’s MMPA waiver request, the US Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service prepared a Draft Environmental Impact Assessment (DEIS), as is required under NEPA. The DEIS ostensibly evaluates the environmental impacts of the proposed hunt if the MMPA waiver is issued. The government is again considering allowing the Makah to kill up to four gray whales per year (up to 24 over six years) and the striking of up to seven whales annually (42 over six years).

AWI opposes Makah whaling for legal, scientific, and humane reasons and we believe that there are a number of deficiencies in the DEIS.

  • Legal: The Makah do not have a nutritional or subsistence need for whales or whaling and, consequently, should the government approve the tribe’s whaling proposal it will create a new form of ASW that  is entirely based on alleged cultural needs. This would have enormous precedent-setting implications for other coastal US tribes that have preserved hunting rights in their treaties and for aboriginal people around the world who may have once, decades or centuries ago, hunted whales. 
  • Scientific: There are effectively three stocks of gray whales that could be impacted by the proposed hunt. Two—the Western North Pacific gray whales and the Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation—are seriously imperiled, with only 140 and 209 individuals remaining, respectively. Eastern North Pacific gray whales, the third stock, consists of nearly 21,000 migratory individuals who face anthropogenic threats from climate change, ocean noise, oil and gas development, pollution, coastal development, contaminants, bycatch, and ship strikes.
  • Humane: Whaling is inherently cruel. It is nearly impossible to instantly kill a large moving animal from a moving vessel on a rolling ocean. The Makah’s proposed use of a harpoon followed by a large caliber rifle is particularly unlikely to result in rapid death, especially given the Makah’s inexperience hunting whales.

The government is accepting public comments on the DEIS. For more information about how to participate in the DEIS decision-making process, please click here.