The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has 89 members divided almost evenly between
countries that condone whaling and those that favor whale conservation. This situation leads to
contentious votes and accusations that decisions are not based on science but on politics, in
particular, whether or not a country favors whaling. Members of Congress have introduced
measures to advance U.S. policy within the Commission to respond to IWC actions. One area of
contention is the right of aboriginal groups to hunt whales (sometimes referred to as indigenous
whaling). Aboriginal subsistence whaling catch limits are set by the IWC for aboriginal peoples
in four countries: the United States (bowhead and gray); Denmark (Greenland) (fin, minke,
bowhead, and humpback); Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (humpback); and Russia (gray and
The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (the Convention) has addressed
aboriginal whaling since it was signed on December 2, 1946, by the United States and 14 other
countries. The Convention limits how many bowhead or gray whales U.S. aboriginal groups may
harvest by setting catch limits for five-year periods. The current period is from 2008 through
Whaling also is restricted in the United States by three domestic laws: the Marine Mammal
Protection Act (MMPA); the Endangered Species Act (ESA); and the Whaling Convention Act
(WCA). The MMPA prohibits all whaling except for subsistence use by Alaska Natives.
Similarly, the ESA prohibits taking listed whales except for subsistence use by Alaska Natives.
The WCA, the enabling act for the Convention, allows whaling by aboriginal peoples to the
extent it does not conflict with the Convention. Despite these statutory exceptions allowing
aboriginal whaling, the Secretary of Commerce can restrict such whaling by adopting specific
regulations under either the MMPA or the ESA. Currently, only the Cook Inlet stock of beluga
whales is protected under such regulation. The Makah Tribe (in the state of Washington) is the
only non-Alaska indigenous group in the United States with the legal right to kill whales. This
right is based on treaty, but the Makah must still comply with the MMPA by receiving a permit
that allows whale harvest. Compliance with U.S. law and the Convention determines the types
and numbers of whales and where and when they are killed.
More recent legislation regarding whaling typically is done by resolution. H.Res. 714, which
expresses support to end all forms of commercial whaling, even when done under scientific
permit, is pending before the 112th Congress. Legislation proposed in the 111th Congress
addressed ending all nonaboriginal whaling, including scientific whaling (H.R. 2455, S. 3116),
and would have made the U.S. representative to the IWC a federal employee (H.R. 2955).
Previous Congresses have addressed whaling in general, and aboriginal whaling in particular.
Legislative measures, primarily in the form of concurrent resolutions, have been proposed in four
categories: protesting commercial, scientific, or community (nonaboriginal) whaling; ensuring
aboriginal whaling rights; providing a tax break for aboriginal whaling captains; and addressing
the United States’ policy at the annual meetings of the IWC.
Date of Report: July 29, 2012
Number of Pages: 19
Order Number: R40571
Document available via
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