Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

Subsistence whaling - Photo by Florian Graner

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, subsistence, and nutritional need for whales and whaling has been recognized by the IWC, to hunt some baleen whale species “exclusively for local consumption.”

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

Recognizing the need for certain native peoples to hunt 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 cultural, nutritional, and 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 the animal’s death and not traded commercially, (e) the whaling is conducted using the least cruel techniques available, and (f) continuing efforts are made to increase the efficiency of the hunt and reduce the amount of time it takes individual whales to die.

AWI does, however, have grave concerns that the above conditions are not being met by all aboriginal subsistence whalers and that the IWC is not adequately managing ASW. The IWC recognizes that traditional methods used to hunt and kill whales for ASW tend to be 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. Although the IWC 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 training of indigenous hunters by whalers from the United States and Norway (who are more experienced with such weaponry), outdated equipment and methods are still used. Times to death are difficult to accurately measure, and such measurements are not standardized among indigenous 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. Whales struck with a harpoon but lost at sea take an unknown length of time to die.

Subsistence Whaling in Greenland

Greenland is a self-governed territory of Denmark. Denmark is a member of the 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.

Most minke whales and all other species hunted in West Greenland are shot from fishing boats with penthrite grenade harpoons as the primary and secondary killing methods. However, Greenland claims that penthrite harpoons are prohibitively expensive, and an increasing number of minke whales taken in West Greenland (and all minke whales hunted in East Greenland) are taken in collective hunts by a hand-held harpoon and rifle fired from a collection of smaller boats working together. Times to death in the collective hunt are high and the instantaneous death rate is almost zero.

At the June 2012 IWC meeting, Denmark sought not only to renew, but to increase the ASW quota for Greenland. 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.

A number of IWC member governments also pointed to Greenland’s poor compliance with IWC regulations (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2012), and urged Denmark to reconsider its request for an increased quota. Despite the concerns raised, Denmark and Greenland refused to compromise by reducing the number of whales sought, even to numbers previously approved by the IWC. As a result, the entire request was rejected, and Greenland’s whaling quotas expired that year. For the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Greenland's Ministry for Fisheries, Hunting and Agriculture self-allocated a whaling quota. In addition, Denmark 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 2015 legal analysis concluded that Greenland’s action in self-allocating a quota violated the IWC’s treaty, and that the only way Greenland can legally hunt large whales is by securing the IWC's approval. However, at its 2016 meeting, the IWC remained unable to decide whether and how to address this infraction.

AWI’s concerns with Greenland hunts include the following:

  • Greenland’s increasing use of inhumane techniques in the collective hunt
  • Inadequate documentation of the nutritional, subsistence, and cultural needs of indigenous people for great whales when calculating per capita need for whale meat, as well as using the entire population of Greenland (indigenous and nonindigenous alike) to calculate per capita need
  • Increasing commerciality of the hunts, with whale meat routinely sold in tourist hotels and restaurants throughout GreenlandExclusion of small cetacean products, which also make up part of the subsistence diet of indigenous Greenlanders, when calculating need for whale meat
  • Wastage of whale products from the largest species, resulting from inadequate flensing and processing techniques

Subsistence Whaling in St. Vincent and the Grenadines

The island of Bequia in St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the eastern Caribbean has a small humpback whaling operation. This operation is a byproduct of the extensive commercial Yankee whaling in the region that began in the late 1800s. When the IWC adopted the commercial whaling moratorium in 1982, the ban covered the Bequian hunt, which was not conducted by indigenous people and was not, therefore, exempt as an ASW operation. Nevertheless, on the understanding that the remaining Bequian whaler would soon retire and the hunt would be phased out, the IWC granted St. Vincent and the Grenadines an ASW quota. Since then, however, the whaling operation has been revived as new whalers learned to hunt and the IWC has renewed the quota regularly. The current quota for the period 2013–2018 is 24 humpback whales, although only one is taken annually on average. The Bequians have killed around 40 whales since 1986, including two Bryde’s whales taken illegally.

The hunting methods reported to be used raise concerns about the humaneness of the hunt: 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 sailboat (which may have been towed to the scene by a speedboat). Once struck, the animal is brought alongside. Then an eight-foot lance is repeatedly stabbed at the animal in an attempt to puncture the whale’s heart or lungs. In some cases, the whale is finally killed by a “bomb lance”—an exploding projectile discharged from a shoulder gun. Historically, female whales were the preferred target, with whalers targeting their calves first (a practice explicitly prohibited by the IWC) in order to lure their mothers to the boat.

For more information see this 2012 report on whaling in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Subsistence Whaling in the Russian Federation

The Chukotka people of the Russian Federation’s Far East hunt gray whales and other marine mammals for subsistence. The hunters use a device known as a “darting gun” that fires a black powder grenade and floats and lines (to prevent the whale from sinking). The secondary killing method is a semi-automatic rifle. These hunts have some of the longest times to death reported to the IWC, with some whales taking several hours to die, and some animals hit with several hundred bullets.

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

In recent years, the Chukotka people have reported that some gray whales give off a strong, pungent odor, making them inedible. The IWC’s Scientific Committee has investigated this issue but has not determined its cause or frequency. It is expected that Russia will seek a higher quota of whales in 2018 when its current quota expires, claiming that its human population has grown and that it needs compensation for unusable “stinky whales.” AWI disputes the number of stinky whales claimed by Russia (i.e., 10 a year, or 10 percent of whales encountered) and questions the need for a higher quota to compensate for these inedible whales. Indeed, according to Russia’s reports to the Scientific Committee, the average incidence of stinky whales over the last ten years is 3.5 whales a year or 2.74 percent of landed whales.

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 (210 feet) line with floats attached. The secondary killing method was either a darting gun or smooth bore 7-guage shoulder gun. Native Iñupiat in Alaska hunt bowhead whales during the winter and spring. During the spring hunt, whales hunted from sealskin boats are brought to the ice edge and, using human power, a block and tackle, or backhoes, are pulled onto the shore-fast ice to be butchered. In the winter hunt, as the whales migrate west and south before the winter ice arrives, they are landed on rocky beaches with the assistance of backhoes and bulldozers.

Since the 1980s, the Iñupiat have investigated the use of penthrite-loaded projectiles as a more efficient killing method, and the method is now used routinely in hunts from Utqiaġvik (formerly, Barrow) and some of the other 10 Alaskan whaling villages. In 1978, the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission (which manages the hunt in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service) committed to the IWC that it would achieve a 75 percent efficiency rate (the rate of animals landed to animals struck). Although it has fallen below this threshold in some years due to poor weather or ice conditions, it has exceeded 80 percent in other years. For example, the AEWC reported an efficiency rate of 72 percent and 80 percent in 2014 and 2015 respectively. The AEWC and its whaling captains are actively engaged in efforts to reduce the cruelty of the hunt by expanding the use of penthrite grenades and providing training to whaling crews in the proper handling and use of these weapons. AEWC whalers have also shared their expertise on using penthrite grenades with their counterparts in Russia and Greenland.

The United States 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 United States reported that it had introduced a new reporting form on which hunters are to record “time to prayer,” which is the time between when the whale is first struck to when the hunters feel they can approach the whale without danger.

The Iñupiats hunt under a six-year IWC quota that is shared with the Chukotka people of the Russian Federation. The Alaskan natives hunted gray whales in the past but are not permitted to do so today, although one was killed illegally in 2017. Another whale, a humpback, was illegally killed in Alaska in May 2016.

Makah Tribe

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’s interest in whaling began to subside in the 1860s and by 1926, the hunts had ceased entirely.

In 1994, the ENP gray whale was removed from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) list of threatened and endangered species. The ENP gray whale, like all marine mammals, remains protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The Western North Pacific gray whales (or Korean stock of gray whales), which live in the western Pacific Ocean along the coast of eastern Asia, remain designated as endangered under the ESA.

In May of 1995, Makah tribal Chairman Hubert Markishtum wrote to the US Department of State and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to petition for the right to re-open whaling, citing a cultural rather than a subsistence need to whale and relying on its right to whale included in the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay. The letter also noted that the tribe strongly believed that it had the right to harvest whales for commercial purposes, as well.

In 1996, the Makah Tribal Council signed an agreement with the US government in which NOAA agreed to request an IWC quota for ENP gray whales so that the tribe could recommence whaling. A number of tribal elders opposed the agreement, stating that whaling was no longer necessary for the tribe. The tribal council continued to push for a resumption of whaling, and after the US gray whale quota request was combined with that of the Russian Federation, it was approved at the 1997 IWC meeting—despite concerns by many countries over the lack of any true subsistence or nutritional need of the Makah Tribe to kill gray whales after a 70-year whaling hiatus.

In 1997, the US government and the Makah developed a management plan for whaling. While the US stated that the proposal would not have any commercial aspects, the Makah continued to reserve their right to sell whale products, and the plan stated that “traditional handicrafts made from non-edible whale products may be sold or offered for sale within the United States.” In October 1997, several whale and animal protection organizations filed suit (Metcalf v. Daley, 214 F.3d 1135 (9th Cir. 2000)) in federal district court challenging the adequacy of an environmental assessment (EA) prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to assess the environmental impact of the Makah hunt. While the district court ruled in favor of the government, the appellate court ruled in 2000 that the government had predetermined the outcome of the EA and ordered it to prepare a new assessment.

In May 1999, before the appellate court ruled in Metcalf v. Daley, 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. Despite the reported cultural interest in resuming whaling, most Makah who celebrated the landing of the whale had departed by evening, leaving the Alaskan whaler nearly alone before the whale had been fully butchered. Most of the meat and blubber from that whale went to waste, as no one remembered how to prepare it for consumption.

A second lawsuit—Anderson v. Evans, 371 F.3d 475, 483 (9th Cir. 2004)—was filed in January 2002 against the US Department of Commerce challenging the federal government's second EA on Makah whaling as violating the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In addition, plaintiffs claimed that the Makah were not exempt from the provisions of the MMPA that protect marine mammals. The district court ruled in favor of the government. Upon appeal, the appellate court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, directing the government to prepare an environmental impact statement (EIS—a more detailed analysis of environmental impacts compared to what is considered in an EA) and held that the MMPA prohibitions against killing marine mammals were applicable to the Makah, thereby requiring the Makah to seek a waiver to the MMPA if it wanted to resume whaling. Pending government compliance with the court’s ruling, all Makah whaling has been prohibited.

Despite these rulings, in September 2007, five members of the Makah Tribe killed another gray whale, violating multiple federal laws. Reportedly 5–10 harpoons and up to 21 bullets were fired into the whale’s body. The whale, thought to be a member of a small group of resident whales, 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 May 2008, NMFS published a draft EIS (DEIS) on the Makah Tribe’s request for a waiver to the MMPA to resume whaling. This EIS was subsequently withdrawn in 2012 due to (1) new scientific information about gray whale population estimates, (2) evidence of genetic differences between ENP gray whales and Pacific Coast Feeding Aggregation (PCFA) gray whales (otherwise known as resident gray whales who remain in waters from Northern California to Southeast Alaska during the summer months when most gray whales are in Arctic waters), and (3) tracking data revealing that endangered WNP gray whales were interacting with their ENP counterparts along their migration from Alaska to Mexico. A second DEIS was published in 2015 and a decision on that analysis remains pending.

The DEIS ostensibly evaluates the environmental impacts of the proposed hunt if the MMPA waiver is issued. The government is again considering whether to allow the Makah to kill up to four gray whales per year and strike of up to seven whales per year over a period of 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 continuing 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 WNP gray whales and the PCFA—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.

Even if the US government decides to grant the requested MMPA waiver to the Makah Tribe, this will not be the end of this debate, as that action will trigger additional legal proceedings (as will any decision by the government to publish a final EIS and final “record of decision” authorizing the Makah to resume whaling.