Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling

In several parts of the world, whale products play an important role in the nutritional and cultural life of native peoples. Since its inception, the IWC has recognized that indigenous or ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling is of a different nature to commercial whaling. It is thus not subject to the moratorium (16). 

Under current IWC regulations, aboriginal subsistence whaling is permitted for Denmark (Greenland, fin, bowhead, humpback and minke whales), the Russian Federation (Siberia, gray and bowhead whales), St Vincent and The Grenadines (Bequia, Humpback whales) and the USA (Alaska, Bowhead whales; Washington State, Gray whales). 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. Based on the information on need and scientific advice, the Commission then sets catch limits, recently in five-year blocks (34). 

A Native American painting from circa. 1870 (23)

History of Aboriginal Subsistence Hunting

Subsistence whaling  is small-sclae, sustainable and aimed at satisfying local needs with no profit incentive (35). There are different definitions of what determines the cultural need associated with an object or practice, the involvement of money being a particular point of contention (34). Furthermore, the definition of aboriginal subsistence whaling developed by the IWC in 1981 states that only situations in which there is a continuing dependence on whales and whaling qualify as for aboriginal subsistence whaling rights (34). Under this definition the Makah tribe would not qualify, as they had to rediscover their traditional whaling practices due to the long break from tradition before the resumption of their hunt.

North American and Russian indigenous peoples have hunted gray whales for centuries and perhaps even for as much as 2000 years (30,32). The discovery of the winter breeding grounds off the coast of Baja California, Mexico by Yankee whalers led to the decimation of the gray whale population between 1846-1873 (36). They were driven to apparent commercial extinction by 1893 (36). Modern commercial whaling of gray whales begin in 1910 and ended in 1946 with the addition of gray whales to the Endangered Species List (36).

Traditional Makah whale hunt ( http://lubbockonline.com/stories/100198/LA0721.shtml)
It is important to consider the reasons for the Makah’s loss of traditional culture for such a long period of time. Commercial whaling by non-native hunters led to the decimation of the gray whale population stock that the Makah had hunted sustainably prior to European settlement. Therefore, long whaling hiatus is not due to a lack of importance regarding whaling in the Makah culture but rather an unavoidable difficulty. The potential for revitalization of culture and community resulting from the continuation of the traditional whale hunt is what is driving the Makah to re-establish their whaling practices.

Chukotka Hunter (http://www.polarfield.com/blog/a-sense-of-place/)
The Russian Chukotkan people continue to hunt gray whales, but there is some question as to whether the whale meat is necessary in the human diets or if it is simply being fed to farm-raised foxes (34). Whale oil was reportedly being sent to other parts of Russia for industrial uses (33). 


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