Subsistence Whaling in the United States


Until relatively recently, Alaskan native peoples hunted bowhead whales using a darting gun with black powder projectile attached to a 35-fathom line with floats attached to tag and identify struck whales, as well as slow them down. A secondary killing method was either a darting gun or smooth bore 7-guage shoulder gun.

Since the 1980s, the Iñupiat have investigated the use of penthrite-loaded projectiles as a more efficient killing method. The method is now used routinely in hunts from Barrow and some of the other 10 villages, though in most of the smaller villages the old methods are used. The U.S. claims that hunting efficiency (the rate of animals landed to animals struck) in the Iñupiat bowhead hunt has improved over the past several decades. Although efficiency had improved by 2010 - with a reported 82% efficiency rate - there was a dramatic decline for the following year, with 71 animals struck but only 45 landed (a 63% efficiency rate).

The U.S. 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 U.S. reported that it had introduced a new reporting form on which hunters are to record "time to prayer" which is the time to when the hunters feel they can approach the whale without danger.

The Iñupiats hunt under a five-year IWC quota that is shared with the Chukotka people of the Russian Federation. The Alaskan natives have also hunted gray whales in the past. Alaskan natives have struck and landed 1,152 bowhead whales since the moratorium went into effect, as well as one humpback, 10 gray and two minke whales.


The Makah Tribe of Neah Bay, Washington State is a Native American tribe with a history of hunting Eastern North Pacific (ENP) gray whales and other marine mammals for subsistence purposes. The tribe ceased whaling in the 1920s. The ENP gray whale was removed from the U.S. list of Threatened and Endangered Species under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The ENP gray whale, like all marine mammals, is protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

In 1996, the Makah Tribe, citing a cultural rather than a subsistence need to whale, and a right under the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay, appealed to the U.S. government to request an IWC quota for ENP gray whales so that the tribe could recommence whaling. After combining its quota request with that of the Russian Federation and despite concerns over the true subsistence needs of the Makah Tribe after a 70-year whaling hiatus, the gray whale quota was approved at the 1998 IWC meeting. A lawsuit (Anderson v. Evans, 371 F.3d 475, 483 (9th Cir. 2004)) was filed against the U.S.  Department of Commerce challenging the federal government's approval of a quota for whaling hunting by the Makah Tribe without complying with the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

In May 1999, 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. It was also reported that most of the animal was discarded and wasted.

The Anderson v. Evans lawsuit was won on appeal in 2002, and subsequent hunts were suspended. The Ninth Circuit Court ruled in 2004 that the Makah, to pursue any treaty rights for whaling, must comply with the process prescribed in the MMPA for authorizing take of marine mammals otherwise prohibited by a moratorium. The Makah Tribe has since requested a waiver of the take moratorium under the MMPA, and the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service is currently preparing the Environmental Impact Assessment that is required under NEPA.

In September 2007, five members of the Makah Tribe killed another gray whale, violating multiple federal laws. A reported 5-10 harpoons and up to 21 bullets were fired into the whale’s body. The whale, thought to be a member of a resident group, took 10 hours to die. After an investigation by the U.S. 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.