The origins and character of ‘aboriginal subsistence’ whaling: a global review


Randall R. Reeves,
Okapi Wildlife Associates, 27 Chandler Lane, Hudson, Quebec, Canada J0P 1H0 (E-mail:


The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recognizes aboriginal subsistence whaling to be distinct from commercial whaling, and these two broad categories of whaling are subject to different management approaches. This paper describes recent, ongoing and likely future whale hunts that qualify, or may qualify, for aboriginal subsistence status within the IWC’s management framework. To ensure conservation of the whale populations, a forthright exposition of the origins, development and character of these hunts is needed in addition to stock assessment, a risk-averse catch limit algorithm and appropriate mechanisms within the whaling communities to ensure compliance. The hunts for Bowhead Whales (Balaena mysticetus) and Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in the Arctic and North Pacific, respectively, and Sperm Whales (Physeter macrocephalus) in Indonesia have long histories and local origins. Those for Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the Lesser Antilles and at Tonga in the South Pacific were introduced by foreign commercial whalers. Whale hunting in the Philippines appears to have originated both locally and as a result of foreign influence. The relatively recent initiation of whaling for Fin Whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and Minke Whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in Greenland required introduced technology but can be viewed as a modern adaptation of an ancient tradition. Consensus in deciding how to classify and manage non-industrial whaling has been, and will remain, elusive. Even with common definitions of key terms such as ‘subsistence’, ‘commercial’ and ‘aboriginal’, interpretations will depend on whether one’s priorities are whale-centred or human-centred.