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, Bequians of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Russian Federation, and the United States.
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: 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the availability of modern weaponry and some training of hunters by more efficient whalers in the U.S. and Norway, outdated equipment and methods are still used.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 different 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 number of minutes or hours to die.
There is hope for progress. At the 63rd IWC meeting in 2011, the U.S., Denmark and the Russian Federation proposed the establishment of an Ad Hoc working group to investigate improvements to ASW hunts. Progress will be reported at upcoming meetings in 2012 and 2014.