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Small-scale whaling in north America[1]

Milton M.R. Freeman
Canadian Circumpolar Institute
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta
T6G 2E1 Canada


Although food security is often defined in economic (e.g. FAO 1995) and dietary terms, there are clearly other important non-economic considerations that influence food security outcomes. Indeed, the very notion of what constitutes a food resource is itself a cultural construct. In regard to what is, or is not, a food resource, there are numerous examples where a previously under-valued species becomes the focus of a new food fishery as a result of consumer education and market and product development.

This situation of changing food acceptability occurs in the Arctic too, and in relation to fisheries which are directed more to the non-monetized, domestic ("subsistence") economy than to the market economy. Thus, whereas about thirty years ago in some regions of the Canadian Arctic, sculpins (Myoxocephalus spp and Scorpio spp) and arctic cod (Boreogadus saida) taken as by-catch in gill-net fisheries were only considered useful as dog food, fox bait, or eaten during periods of starvation, many Inuit living a more sedentary and economically secure existence today regularly fish for cod and sculpins and include them in their everyday diet.

For such reasons, social and cultural factors should be carefully considered when questions of food security are discussed. This is particularly the case when international fishery issues are under consideration, for here the cultural differences between managers and fishers will be most pronounced, and the viewpoints of rural peoples are most in danger of being under-valued or ignored. In formulating "global" policies, it is often the case that decisions appearing to make sense to metropolitan decision-makers may appear irrational or woefully inappropriate in rural areas affected by such decisions. Thus, it is not surprising that the NGO caucus representing fishers and community interests at the 1995 Kyoto conference on Fisheries and Food Security urged delegates

To recognize and respect the importance of cultures and traditions and to preclude the imposition of any nation's or group's moral, ethical, or aesthetic values on others.
This plea for greater understanding was indeed noted in the final Kyoto Declaration and Action Plan, where delegates:
Call for an increase in the respect and understanding of social, economic and cultural differences among States and regions in the use of living aquatic resources, especially cultural diversity in dietary habits...
In the field of fisheries, an issue which perhaps illustrates most profoundly the cultural disconnect that may exist, is seen to occur when the consumptive use of marine mammals is being discussed. Although ideological differences between those who find it acceptable to kill mammals for food, and those who consider such actions unacceptable, have existed for many decades, it seems that some who once accepted animal slaughter for food, nevertheless now find it unacceptable that whales should continue to be killed for food. The reasons for this will not be considered in this study, but have been discussed elsewhere (e.g. Cawthorn 1999; Freeman 1990; 1997; Kalland 1993; Lynge 1992).

However, the reality is that a number of societies in the Arctic, the North Atlantic, the North Pacific, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia continue to hunt and consume whales. The current trend indicates whaling is on the increase (WCW 1999), with more than 98 percent of the whales and small cetaceans annually killed in directed whaling operations under national or regional jurisdiction, thus avoiding the seriously negative socio-economic, cultural, and dietary consequences caused by the cultural dissonance that has created serious management dysfunction in the global whaling regime (Burke 1997; Friedheim 1997; Aron et al. 2000).

The present case study examines small-scale whaling carried out today in the far northern regions of North America. For thousands of years, the Inuit -- the indigenous people of the region -- have considered various whale species as important sources of food. Although the skin, oil, bones, sinew, baleen and ivory of whales has been important for non-food purposes, it is the degree of food security afforded by these large-bodied animals that causes whales to remain important in the diet of the Inuit. A number of other non-dietary considerations contribute to the role that whales, whale hunting, and whale consumption play in sustaining the cultural identity of the Inuit.

With this as background, this case study will consider those social and cultural events which strengthen food security among these northern societies, and conversely, those factors which threaten food security. In relation to management of these arctic fisheries, the paper will consider social and cultural institutions, practices, and norms that contribute to the sustainability of marine-mammal hunting activities.


Small-scale whaling in North America at the present time is carried out by about one-hundred communities in the northern provinces and territories of Canada and in the state of Alaska. These communities together take more than one thousand whales each year, principally of three species: beluga (in greatest numbers), narwhal, and bowhead (in smallest number of the three species). To a much more limited extent, there are a few native Indian communities in southern Alaska and on the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. who either engage in whaling or utilize beached whales for food.

Whaling by non-indigenous peoples in North America has now ceased. Formerly, shore-based whaling operations using catcher boats or drive fisheries operated on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. However, these operations had ceased by the 1970s when commercial markets for whale products, and the associated scarcity of preferred species of whales, made whaling an economically-uncertain occupation.

In indigenous societies however, whaling is only to a limited degree considered an economic activity. This is not to say that whaling plays an unimportant economic role in these societies, for it certainly contributes to the food security of northern peoples by making available quantities of meat and fat which, in the absence of whaling would likely increase the importation and purchase of other foods or cause the need to increase hunting on other marine mammal species. However, as all economic transactions embody social and cultural attributes, it is more important to consider the manner in which customary economic behaviour associated with whaling contributes to the social vitality and cultural viability of these marine-resource dependent communities.

Hunting marine mammals -- especially the larger species such as whales -- from small boats can be a dangerous activity, involving loss of hunters at sea or on the sea-ice. Fortunately such dangers represent a lessened risk today, due to the availability of radios, air-rescue services, and the use of larger boats. However, it is important when considering the cultural importance of whaling today to remember that these marine-hunting societies formed their systems of belief at times when whaling represented a far more dangerous occupation than arguably exists today. As a consequence of the risks associated with whaling, many religious and ritual beliefs and practices became closely associated with whale hunting to insure safety for those engaged in this high-risk occupation.

Therefore it is not surprising that among peoples who hunt and consume whales (or who did so until recently), the act of whaling and celebrating the whale is in varying degrees retained as a core feature of their social, symbolic, aesthetic, ceremonial, and spiritual cultures to this day. Add to this the significant contribution a landed whale makes to the economic and food security of a small hunting community, and it is easy to understand the primary place whales and whaling continues to have in the mind and social life of these societies today.

2.1 Evidence of a rekindled interest in whaling

For such reasons, it is not surprising that as whales become more abundant in many regions of the world today, the decade of the 1990s has witnessed a steady revival of whaling among a number of societies. Many of these societies, despite an interruption in their whaling activities for decades, continued consuming whale products taken from occasional beached or opportunistically taken whales, as well as through trade, or received as gifts from neighbouring whalers. In these ways, as well as through their continuing oral traditions, religious beliefs, and visual and performing arts, an unbroken connection with their recent whaling pasts have been retained as a central element of these indigenous whaling societies' cultural identities.

As examples of such whaling resurgences during the 1990s, Inuvialuit hunters in the Western Canadian Arctic resumed bowhead whaling after a lapse of seventy years in 1991, shortly thereafter followed by Inuit hunters in three whaling communities in the Eastern Canadian Arctic who, in each case, took a bowhead whale after a fifty-year hiatus. Similarly, Alaskan Yup'iit of Little Diomede Island took their first bowhead in seventy years in 1999, and the Makah Indian Nation in the State of Washington successfully resumed gray whale hunting in 1999 -- also after a seventy year interruption. This resumption of whaling is also occurring in several areas outside North America, and is partly related, inter alia, to the widespread recovery of whale populations occurring in many areas of the world. At the present time, some whale stocks are increasing at rates greater than 10 percent per annum. Indeed, the recovery of these stocks of several whale species has been quite marked following the collapse of the global demand for whale products and the end of large-scale industrial whaling operations (Freeman 1994:147-148).

For North American indigenous whalers, as mentioned earlier, the importance of whaling is not primarily centred upon the economic value of the products. Rather, once whale stocks become abundant in their local waters, the desire to hunt them is in each case based on compelling cultural reasons. As a Makah Indian observed after his community landed a gray whale in May 1999: "A man can receive only what is given to him from heaven" (reported in Andersen 1999). In each case, the resumption of whaling in North America has occurred in an environmentally-responsible manner, with concern for continuity with a number of important indigenous cultural practices as well as, to the degree it is practically possible, attention to the non-indigenous publics' emotional sensitivities toward whales (e.g. Erikson 1999).

This sensitivity to the wider-publics' concerns about whaling has necessitated various technological changes in indigenous whaling practices, such as using modern weapons to insure that the whale is quickly dispatched once it is harpooned. Similarly, in an effort to reduce pursuit time and thus insure less stress to the whale, motorized boats and radio communication is now an essential part of indigenous whaling. However, these technological innovations constitute only a small part of the indigenous whaling complex, the social and cultural aspects of which will be further discussed below.


Given the climatic and geographic conditions found at high latitudes, hunting, fishing and gathering provides the basis of food production. For coastal peoples, the sea usually offers a more secure source of food than does the treeless tundra.

Gathering is a seasonal activity: some inter-tidal shellfish, sea urchins and seaweeds are gathered in spring and summer, birds' eggs are gathered in spring, the roots and young leaves of a few tundra plants in summer, and berries in the fall. Fishing is also seasonal: netting or spearing anadromous fish as they descend rivers in the spring and return to freshwater habitats in the fall often provide the most important yearly fish catches. Some summer and fall net-fishing in the sea, rivers, or lakes occurs in some places, and some winter and spring jigging or spearing may be undertaken through holes in the ice.

However, by far the most important food production comes from hunting. The fish fauna in arctic regions is poor compared to that found in temperate or lower latitude marine areas, and some abundant marine fish (e.g. Greenland halibut) or marine invertebrates (e.g. shrimp or crab) occur in deeper waters which until quite recently could not be effectively taken with indigenous technology. However, migratory warm-blooded animals (including birds and whales) arrive in abundance to feed on the seasonally available marine invertebrates. At these high latitudes therefore, biogeographic and technological reasons dictated that human societies have necessarily depended heavily upon marine mammals for food.

Whaling is generally an open water activity. Although whales occur throughout the year in some regions of the Arctic (e.g. in Hudson Bay and Hudson Strait), most are hunted from the edge of the land-fast ice in spring or in open water in the summer and fall. Even when they are available for a few weeks each year, whales -- being large-bodied --often provide sufficient meat, blubber and mattak [the skin and attached blubber] to be part of the diet throughout the year. Methods of storing whale products include freezing, either in ice-cellars constructed in the permafrost, or in above-ground caches from September though April when average air temperatures remain below freezing. Meat is also dried, and mattak may be stored in oil or subject to controlled fermentation. Mattak from the bowhead whale is noteworthy for being able to be stored unfrozen for long periods of time at cool temperatures without deteriorating.

3.1 The importance of whale as food

The Inuit report a loss of vitality, an increased propensity to illness, and a lessened sense of wellbeing when not eating their customary local foods. For these reasons, local foods are always preferred over imported foods in dietary surveys carried out in Inuit communities. This is not to say that many Inuit do not enjoy eating a variety of imported or non-local foods, but rather, that they consider their diet markedly incomplete if it does not provide access to traditional food (Freeman et al. 1998:35-39).

High among the preferred traditional foods is mattak, which is ranked preferentially according to the species of whale, the age of the individual whale, and where on the whale's surface the mattak occurs. This preference exists among children as well as among adults (Wein and Freeman 1992; Wein et al. 1996). Mattak arguably constitutes the most favoured delicacy in the Inuit cuisine. So strong is the desire for mattak, that Inuit elders in the Eastern Canadian Arctic have expressed extreme sadness at the thought of not eating bowhead mattak (considered by them the most desired type of mattak) once more before they die -- even though the mattak of narwhal and beluga whales is a readily available part of their customary diet today (Freeman et al. 1998:33, 37).

For the Inuit, the food of the animals they eat is an integral part of their identity. "We are what we eat" is a saying heard in many societies worldwide, while among the Inuit it is a profound truth:

Whales are very important to the people who eat whales... once we don't have the whales' nutrients in our bodies, it's like part of our bodies is missing" (Tina Netser, in Freeman et al. 1998:39)

There are not words for the emptiness I would feel if we didn't have mattak... I could not even imagine such a thing, it is so much a part of me. (Alaskan elder, in ibid: 38)

It is apparent that today, as in the past, whale products continue to have considerable cultural importance to the Inuit. Far more than just a nutritional necessity in a cold climate, traditional foods provide an enduring basis for Inuit identity at a time when so much else is changing in this era of globalization. However, it is not just the eating of local foods that is considered important; indeed, the act of hunting, processing, sharing and consuming the food together amply satisfy many psychological and spiritual needs. It is this complex of activities, needs, satisfactions, and socio-cultural norms and beliefs, that constitutes subsistence, a term often erroneously equated with mere sustenance or limited economic circumstance (Freeman 1993).

With the above in mind, it is evident that imported foods, increasingly available in the Arctic in recent times, are only able to supplement -- but not replace -- the customary Inuit diet.


The basic unit of food production in traditional Inuit society was the household, generally consisting of a married couple and their unmarried children. Seasonal settlements, which in most cases were small in size, consisted of households of related kin, with the eldest active kinsman the "leader" of the settlement group -- although in Inuit society, a high degree of individual autonomy is retained by all household heads. A larger and more structured form of settlement organization was found in Iñupiat whaling societies of North Alaska, where the need for whaling-crew solidarity was necessary (Worl 1980; see Stevenson 1997 for similar social arrangements in Eastern Canadian Arctic bowhead whaling settlements).

Settlements often relocated on a seasonal basis several times each year. The seasonal sites were chosen to optimize access to important food resources, as for example, closeness to the sea-ice edge (a preferred hunting location) or to food animals' migration or feeding locations. Some locations served as traditional trading sites or for staging large-scale collective hunts -- particularly whale drives (Friesen and Arnold 1995; Lucier & Vanstone 1995; McGhee 1974).

Within each Inuit household, a gender-based division of labour is found, although particular domestic circumstances may vary the actual allocation of tasks. It is usual for men to hunt and flense whales, with women preparing the meat and other edible parts for eating (which may, or may not, involve cooking) and for drying the meat. In the Eastern Canadian Arctic, the red meat of whales is generally only considered human food if it has been air-dried (otherwise it has traditionally been used as dog-food). Apart from domestic arrangements being gendered, it should be noted that that traditional knowledge, which is important in all aspects of food acquisition, processing and distribution, is also gendered. The full extent to which Inuit women contribute to the socio-economic vitality of their community is not fully analyzed or understood (Nuttall 1998:164).

However, women are considered critical to the success of the actual hunt in some Inuit regions. For example, among bowhead hunters in north Alaska, women are considered co-captains (or even captains) of the whaling crews -- even if not being physically present during the hunt:

The whaling captain's wife is like a general. Her responsibilities are so great that the captain doesn't go out to seek the whale... the captain's wife... is the main catcher... She "brings in" the whale... she makes it easier for the captain to harvest a whale... and is called a "crew captain". (Frank Long, in Jolles 1995:331; see also Bodenhorn 1990).
The then-President of the pan-Inuit political organization, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, made a similar acknowledgement to women's importance when he addressed an international meeting in 1995:
Much of the fabric of our communities and our economies is due to the strength and talents of our women... I believe we should once again bring elder women with us to meetings of the International Whaling Commission, to meetings of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species [CITES] and to the IUCN. We should let them speak more loudly to the United States hearings of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. (Pungowiyi 1995)
In the Eastern Canadian Arctic, women used to sing special whaling songs on the beach during whale hunts, calling the whales and thus making it easier for their menfolk to bring the whales ashore. Thanking acts were also common following a successful whale hunt (Freeman 1968). Drum dances, with women's dances predominating, were performed at the bowhead whaling camp in the Canadian wesrtern Arctic in 1991. These dances were performed during preparations for the hunt and following the successful landing of a whale. In addition, when the whale was landed, the hunt-captain's wife, in accord with tradition, was the first to cut up choice pieces of the whale for communal eating at the site by the approximately 100 people gathered there for this historic event. A traditional women's song of celebration and thanks was performed on the beach following the successful landing of a bowhead whale in the Canadian Eastern Arctic in 1998.

With the various changes taking place in the Arctic today, resulting from such events as the availability of multi-channel television programming, political development, and economic diversification, do these traditional aspects of whaling nevertheless remain in effect? There is no doubt that changes do occur, and especially so in some of the larger and more urbanized settlements supporting the newly-created centres of self-government. However, the number of whaling crews continues to grow in the bowhead whaling communities in Alaska, and young men continue to accompany their fathers on whale hunting trips throughout the Canadian Arctic. As a young student at the Maani Ulujuk School in an Eastern Canadian Arctic regional government centre stated:

I just want to say that whaling on the Hudson Bay is already a major part of my life even though I am still young. I've been hunting whales ever since I can remember, with my grandpa, dad, uncles and many other relatives... Whaling plays a major role in most Inuit lives... If it's hunting, cooking or eating [animals], it is important to Inuit culture. (Neco Towtongie, in Freeman et al. 1998:43)
In situations where hunting is such a basic and meaningful activity in the eyes of the majority of residents, social incentives remain for many young men to take part in hunts whenever their other duties allow. Hunting the important food species, whether geese, caribou, seals, or whales, facilitates ready and emotionally-satisfying incorporation into Inuit adult society.

4.1 The importance of sharing

A basic rule among Inuit -- as indeed, among many other hunter-gatherers -- is that food and certain other essential materials are shared according to need. This cultural norm is especially strongly developed in regard to food: to withhold food is considered tantamount to threatening life itself, and so is considered dangerously anti-social behaviour. Stinginess in general is therefore considered negatively, and conversely, generosity is highly valued. This ethic of sharing food remains very strong among the Inuit today:

We always share here with our neighbours even if we only have a small amount... [Inuvialuit] all want the bowhead mattak and meat. We share food with those who don't have it. So the Aklavik people will hunt [the bowhead] for all the Inuvialuit.... we will distribute the meat to any of the communities that want it. We always share our food. (Dorothy Arey, in Freeman et al. 1992:61)
Today, as the Inuit find themselves living in increasingly large communities, many having more than 1000 residents, many co-residents are not kinsfolk. It was kinship ties which in former times structured formal sharing arrangements. Today therefore, in the larger communities it has become increasingly difficult to share hunted foods in an effective manner on a community-wide basis. This has resulted in a greater degree of importance accorded to hunting whales, for these large-bodied animals allow greater possibilities for the full expression of widespread communal food sharing. In the case of foods obtained from smaller-bodied animals (e.g. seals, fish, caribou, or geese), hunters still share the results of the hunt with their immediate kin, neighbours and friends.

An important aspect of sharing is that it serves to enhance resource conservation by reducing the need for each household to secure its own food at all times. Hunters may knowingly take more than their own household needs, both because others may need the food and also because social norms encourage generosity, and social approval follows from demonstrated competence in hunting. However, this widespread sharing of food effectively reduces the possibility of waste that an over-supply of food might cause, for individuals know that non-hunting does not result in lack of food in their own households.

Today, many adult men must combine hunting with some form of employment that will provide the cash needed to purchase hunting equipment and supplies. The societal norm of generalized reciprocity, which underlies sharing behaviour, insures households of wage-earners who are unable to hunt on a regular basis, receive periodic gifts of needed local foods from hunters whom the wage-employed men can assist with either cash or purchased supplies needed for hunting. A recent Canadian government study has concluded that the cost of replacing locally-hunted meat with imported meat in northern aboriginal communities would cost each family more than Can$10,000 [US$7,000] annually (Gilman et al. 1997:306). Such high replacement costs of food tend to emphasize the significance of these economic transfers between hunters having a surplus of food and the part-time hunters whose households may be in a food-deficit situation.


To illustrate the conservation consequence of sharing food, it can be noted that although the Inuvialuit population has almost doubled in size over the past twenty years, the average number of beluga whales taken each year has remained almost constant at around 120, even though over this time the hunting technology has significantly improved. Beluga remains a highly desired food species in the region (Wein and Freeman 1992), and despite the increasing number of consumers and improvements in the hunting technology, the number of whales hunted has remained stable without external quotas having to be imposed upon these Inuit whale hunters.

Beluga mattak, meat, and blubber continue to be shared in the communities and sent as gifts to relatives and friends in neighbouring communities, and most importantly, the cultural norms that insure the hunt is sustainable are not threatened by the modernization that has occurred in these Inuit communities. Local hunting practices are firmly under community control, based on respect for the hunting culture and for the local resources. Sustainable use of the important food species is assured -- without the need to change effective indigenous conservation practices that have persisted for generations.

As an example of these customary practices, one hunting norm holds that female beluga are not to be killed if accompanied by calves or juvenile whales. This norm has been formally introduced into the hunting by-laws of the six Western Canadian Arctic Inuit communities. Thus, when strong winds cause a high degree of turbidity in the shallow inshore waters where hunting occurs, hunting may be suspended so there is no likelihood of killing a female beluga that may be accompanied by an unseen calf or juvenile whale.

Clearly, any system of external "management" of the hunt that might change these hunters' strategic hunting decisions could result in potentially negative impacts upon the beluga population -- and indeed, upon biodiversity conservation in general (for similar considerations, based on respect, apply to the local peoples' hunting and fishing for other species too). For example, a popular measure used by state managers for "managing" fisheries is through the imposition of quotas in an effort to insure sustainable catches. Fortunately this measure has never been applied in this region of the Canadian Arctic. Nor are "quotas" imposed on the Inuit of Arctic Quebec, whose numbers and hunting capacity have increased in similar fashion to that occurring in the Western Arctic, but where -- as in the Western Arctic -- the annual beluga take has remained more or less constant for twenty years (at around 270 whales per year).

In recent months, externally-imposed hunting quotas have been removed from all narwhal-hunting communities in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, and also in respect to beluga hunts in some communities in this region. These measures were taken by a newly-created regional co-management board that is seeking to decentralize regulation of whaling as a means of improving on the heretofore orthodox state-management approaches that have proved to be inadequate. One such inadequacy is in regard to obtaining accurate reporting of hunting returns, and especially the number of whales not recovered after being shot. By devolving responsibility for good hunting practices to the hunters' organization in each of the several communities (as has been the practice in the Western Canadian Arctic where co-management was instituted in the 1980s) the difficulty of obtaining accurate reports is likely to be minimized or even removed altogether (e.g., Stirling 1990).

5.1 Cultural threats and threats to conservation

In contrast to the current socially-acceptable, culturally-informed, and community-based conservation measures operating in these regions of the Canadian Arctic, what if the number of whales to be taken by the Western Arctic Inuvialuit say, was set by some centralized management body? If the quota were set at 125 whales (the average annual take over the past two decades), this number would first have to be divided between six Inuit hunting communities, each of which would then have to allocate a fixed number of whales among a far greater number of hunters in each community.

Apart from any social tensions such allocations might cause, the constraints of time or weather placed on an individual receiving a permit to hunt beluga might result in an inappropriate hunting decision. For example, delays that might occur waiting for more favourable hunting conditions could very well eliminate a hunter's opportunity to utilize his hunt permit in the specified time period, prompting hunting activity when conditions were less than ideal. Such pressing practical concerns and social needs have the potential to threaten or otherwise compromise hunting traditions and associated conservation outcomes.

The statement often heard: "Quotas: you either use them -- or lose them!" reflects one decidedly negative aspect accompanying management from a distance, where distance is measured both socially and culturally, as well as in geographic terms. Such inappropriate, and hence sometimes resented, management measures may trigger reactions that may have negative impacts on the resource. It is essential therefore, that regulation of hunts be recognized as requiring a flexible and socially-informed adaptive response, whose purpose and effectiveness can be seriously compromised by being distanced from the user community's perception of reality and reasonableness (see Townsley 1998:58).

In this study, care has been taken to avoid using the term "management" when referring to Inuit conservation practices. The term "management" implies manipulation, control, or being in charge of something or someone. To apply such terms to humans' relationship to nature is, to the Inuit, quite an inappropriate way of understanding the relationship between human persons and non-human persons [animals]. To the Inuit, the notion of human persons controlling nature is not just absurd, it is also disrespectful and morally offensive. Indeed, it is these basic cultural differences that cause many of the difficulties that western science-based "managers" have encountered in seeking to regulate hunting activities. Other problems arise from the different assessment that state managers and local users have about the status of the resource and what should be done about it. These issues will be addressed in a later section of this report.

5.2 Controlling access to resources

Despite the differences and difficulties just alluded to, there is now a growing appreciation in many parts of the world that in addition to state management systems for regulating resource use, there continue to exist indigenous or local-level systems which mediate the interactions between local peoples and the food species they depend upon. These indigenous systems employ systems of knowing which are variously referred to as "IK" [indigenous knowledge], "TEK" [traditional ecological knowledge] and "TEKMS" [traditional ecological knowledge and management systems] (see e.g., Freeman & Carbyn 1988; Johnson 1992; Inglis 1993). Thus in northern Canada and in Alaska, efforts at instituting more co-operative forms of management (or co-management) are beginning to significantly change the older, state-management systems (Huntington 1992; Notzke 1995; Usher 1995; Freeman 1989; Freeman et al. 1998:115ff).

A considerable body of scientific literature now provides detailed descriptions and analyses of community-based institutional arrangements that exist in human societies in order to regulate unbridled self-interest, and which, as a consequence, helps make orderly social life possible (e.g., NRC 1986; McCay and Acheson 1987; Berkes et al. 1989; Feeny et al. 1990; Ostrom 1990; Bromley 1992). This is not to deny that unsustainable resource use may still occur, nor that some individuals may engage in self-serving and anti-social behaviour. Moreover, non-local individuals or groups may have little incentive or interest in maintaining the sustainability of other peoples' resource base.

However, the examples frequently cited to demonstrate such unsustainable resource use are quite often examples that characterize frontier development, colonial economies, and other examples of laissez-faire industrial (or state) capitalism, situations in which pre-existing indigenous property rights are dismantled, ignored, or are not enforced (Berkes 1996:94-95). This occurred, for example, when European colonists or mercantile interests came upon and subsequently decimated the arctic stocks of Greenland right whale and Steller's sea cow in the 16th century. However, it would be incorrect to conclude that subsistence or pre-modern fishers were always prudent in the use of marine resources (e.g. McGoodwin 1990:49-64). Nevertheless, despite scattered examples of indigenous peoples' resource over-use, there is also a considerable literature which suggests that in many settled human societies, resource users' relationships with the local resources are effectively mediated by social institutions that effectively regulate human use of the resource (e.g. Berkes et al. 1989; Freeman et al. 1991; Dyer and McGoodwin 1994).

At a 1998 IUCN workshop on sustainable resource use held at Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, workshop participants concluded that the replacement of customary tenure systems by government (state) management regimes has, to a great extent, had detrimental effects upon conservation of biodiversity. The workshop concluded that where well-defined tenure and access rights have been devolved to the local user-community level, sustainability of resource use has been significantly enhanced (Jenkins 1999:75). Implicit in the findings of the Bratislava workshop is the conclusion that there exist two (or more) differing systems of resource regulation in operation, one the state management system based upon western science-based understandings and the other being indigenous systems based on quite dissimilar bodies of knowledge and understanding about the nature of resources and how they should be conserved.

State management policies affecting resource use cannot be understood without reference to existing systems of property rights or tenure, which in turn reflect the fundamental political arrangements found in society (Usher 1984:389). The notion that an item becomes a commodity or property only after it has been subjected to human labour is common in western thinking. Thus, by extension, wild nature -- not yet subject to human labour -- is not property, nor does it have an actual commodity value until appropriated in some way. This conclusion provides the basic justification for state managers to appropriate resources into "management" regimes.

In contrast to this Euro-American process that conceptually transforms wild species into commodities or property, indigenous resource users in North America hold quite different conceptions. Indeed, the fundamental Euro-American distinction between people and resources (or between humankind and nature) as mentioned earlier, is either lacking altogether, or is far less pronounced in most indigenous world views than occurs in western metropolitan society.

In most indigenous traditions, people living in socially- and territorially-defined groups enjoyed the rights and ability to access and dispose of living resources in their territories according to socially-sanctioned norms. The local food species were considered communal resources, with access, benefits, and responsibilities shared among a community of users. Access was limited only if such limitation was considered necessary to maintain social harmony or to sustain these resources for future use.

Thus, some system for insuring the sustainability of the human/resource relationship was required to prevent socially-disruptive over-use of resources, with a number of social institutions and cultural norms consequently being adopted over time. One important question, however, is whether such adaptive institutions that appeared to function well in the past remain effective today for insuring sustainable resource use in the face of changed circumstances -- which include, inter alia, economic incentives to market resources that are surplus to immediate needs.


It is necessary to briefly consider the issue of the commercial use of food resources in the North American small-scale whaling societies. The reason for having to address this concern is the persistent belief among many of those involved with whale management that indigenous peoples have been -- or will be -- inevitably corrupted if allowed to commercialize their trade in wildlife resources taken for subsistence (Freeman 1993). Although the exact reason for this concern or its consequences are never explicitly stated, it appears that there is a widespread and unchallenged belief that once corrupted by exchanging wildlife for cash, it will be virtually impossible to contain the excesses in killing that, it is claimed, will inevitably follow.

However, there is considerable evidence that among the Inuit of Canada and Alaska there appears to be quite limited interest in engaging in any large-scale commercialization of food resources important in subsistence. It appears that Inuit are aware that the culturally-important core values of generosity and sharing of food could be compromised if such resources were to have cash value[2]. The economic importance of shared foods at the present time is that they support a high degree of reciprocity among producers -- to the evident benefit of all. Thus, any changes which place this customary system at risk is apparently met with considerable opposition at the community level. As a consequence, persistent efforts by Canadian government departments of economic development to encourage inter-settlement trade in local food items have met only very limited success over many years. Where commercial success has occurred, it has usually involved non-food wildlife products that are sold to non-local businesses (e.g. ivory, reindeer antler, eider down), food items that are sold to non-local businesses (e.g., arctic char to restaurants in southern cities), or non-traditional food items (e.g. shrimp, crab, or halibut).

Significantly, a recent study by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to establish guidelines for the sustainable consumptive use of arctic wildlife (including marine mammals) concluded that there was no justification for distinguishing between subsistence use and commercial use of wildlife in either the Western or Eastern Canadian Arctic Inuit communities examined in the study. The report concluded that in these communities there existed a strong conservation-oriented philosophy, sets of principles, and an institutional framework for managing wild species on a sustainable basis (Curtis and Ewins 1998a, 1998b). Therefore, it would appear that for the foreseeable future, market sales of whale and other food resources (as permitted under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act and all Canadian Inuit land claim settlements) does not constitute a threat to food security in these small-scale whaling societies.

6.1 Environmental threats to Arctic food security

Food security can be negatively impacted by many social, economic, and environmental changes. However, the focus of this paper has been on the social and cultural factors which have the potential to insure that food security is enhanced through ensuring that resource-use practices are sustainable. The assumption in this paper is that the greatest threat to food security in North American small-scale whaling societies results from unsustainable use practices that will reduce consumers' access to customary whale-derived foods. However, other potential threats to food security will be briefly discussed: (1) climate change, (2) environmental contaminants, and (3) animal-protection campaigns.

Many scientists believe that climate change will produce its most marked effects in the high latitude regions of the world. At this time, various environmental changes are becoming evident in Alaska which are thought to result from rising temperatures. On the other hand, climate change appears to have resulted in cooling in the Eastern Canadian Arctic. However, climate change is nothing new in the Arctic, and many Inuit elders have lived through both hotter and colder decades in their lifetimes. Yet, whatever changes occur, they will influence the abundance and distribution of various food species, with some species finding the environmental changes favourable, others being negatively affected, and yet others unlikely to be affected. It is impossible to predict whether the net effect of these changes will compromise or enhance food security. There are also many scientists who are sceptical of the climate models that provide the only basis for predicting what the seasonal weather will be in future decades. Predicting future impacts of global climate change on arctic peoples' food security therefore appears to be very uncertain at this time.

Environmental contaminants include various organic compounds (e.g., PCBs, dioxin, chlordane), heavy metals (e.g., mercury, cadmium, lead) and radionuclides. All may enter the bodies of Inuit from the foods they eat. Whale skin and blubber is known to contain high levels of mercury and fat-soluble organochlorines, while other whale tissues also contain high levels of other contaminants. However, so far there has been no detected increase in death rates, cancer rates, birth defects or adverse toxicological effects on Inuit as a result of many years exposure to these contaminants (Middaugh 1994). This is not to say that negative health effects may not appear in the future, but it does suggest that the worst fears (which result from animal testing, a technique known to have questionable applicability to human health) may be unfounded (Ames and Gold 1995; Dewailly et al. 1996:16). Perhaps most important, current medical and nutritional experts advise Inuit against substituting imported foods of known lower nutritional and socio-cultural significance for fresh local foods (Dewailly et al. 1994:104; Gilman et al. 1997:345,353,361-366).

The threats posed by animal protectionists, irrespective of whether their actions are based on animal rights or animal welfare concerns, represent a more immediate threat to arctic peoples' food security -- especially when part of that overall security is based on hunting and consuming whales and other marine mammals. However, the greatest threat animal protectionists posed may now have peaked, for the public appears increasingly critical of the exaggerated claims of protectionists that hunting will lead to extinction of most whale species. Improved knowledge of the population status of these species will result from co-management arrangements that are assuming responsibility for whaling regulation in North America.

Another allegation made by whale protectionists is that whaling is unnecessary and cruel. Many urban dwellers are uncomfortable seeing pictures of any large animals being killed, and these emotionally unsettling images will likely continue to be periodically distributed to print and television journalists who doubtless will consider them shocking enough to display. Countering protectionists' campaigns will require that user communities become more assertive in providing factual and current information to the public concerning their need to hunt whales on a sustainable basis, and also concerning their ongoing efforts to reduce any whale suffering (or the perception of suffering) that hunting involves. The technology now exists for insuring that whales are killed rapidly, which combined with maintaining high levels of hunting skill and public education will allow the public to reach its own conclusions concerning the justification for continued sustainable whale use.


Efforts by animal rights proponents to introduce ethical issues into their anti-use campaigns suggests to the public at large that the protesters occupy a moral high ground. However, indigenous societies are also built on moral and ethical principles. Included among institutional arrangements that support sustainable resource use practices, for instance, are prescriptive norms of appropriate conduct stemming from a system of ethics that governs attitudes and behaviour toward living resources.

One such norm is that taking food animals is only to be carried out in response to the need for food. In the absence of need, no hunting should occur. Of course, need is not only current or immediate need: at certain seasons there may exist the need to gather and store supplies for predictable scarcity that will invariably occur later in the year. Hunters are also aware of the need of others who also require traditional foods. As Don Long, an Iñupiat whaler stated:

... why did I become a whaling captain? Because of the opportunity to feed the community... the whale basically is a community whale... you have the honour of feeding your community... it's not that we go whaling for individual gain; it is for community gain. (Don Long, in Freeman et al. 1998:32).
A second ethical norm is that waste[3] of food should be avoided. This encourages widespread sharing, as noted earlier. Northern ethnographies are full of references to the emphasis attached to generosity and insuring that others have access to available food at all times, and such importance is still much in evidence among the Inuit today:
When a hunter kills a whale, the meat is never wasted. Everyone gets a piece of the whale for the family. God put them there for a reason, and the people use it wisely... if the people do have too much, they give the leftovers to the people who need it. (Eastern Canadian Arctic junior high school student, in Freeman et al. 1998:39).
A third such norm is to limit the physical disturbance of the animal population when taking from it, which can be expressed as always being mindful of the consequences of the act of taking. Showing respect in this manner insures the animals continue to return to the same location:
Anyone who has observed a whale hunt will have seen how little disturbance is caused by the take of a large whale, or a number of small whales. Although the actual school of whales is momentarily disturbed, nevertheless they come back again, day after day, year after year. (Ingmar Egede, in Freeman et al. 1998:13).
A fourth prevailing belief is that success in the hunt will result because the hunter, and often others in the hunter's family or community, show respect for the animals (Fienup-Riordan 1990:172, 184-187; McDonald et al. 1997:6). Respect includes not abusing an animal and reducing to a minimum the suffering an animal may experience. Skilled hunters know the importance of reducing animals' suffering and how to hunt in this manner:
There was no fear in trying to kill a great whale... My father... knew the right place to stick in the spear. He would paddle beside the whale, carefully looking at her body. There is a place below the spine where you can see a movement... that's where the kidney is, and that's the only place where it is safe to... spear. This was done carefully and quietly, and you may be surprised to know that the whale did not even know that she was being killed. There was no fight. She kept swimming on. We would follow her... until she died. (Jim Kilabuk, in Freeman et al. 1998:77-8)
7.1 The importance of respect and reciprocity

In effect, among the indigenous peoples' of the Arctic, these various ethical precepts concerning animals and nature can be captured by the notion "respect".

The word respect is key to understanding wildlife and environment. If there is no respect then environmental problems arise... respect toward nature is needed in order to have food and a good living. (Lucassie Arragutainaq, in McDonald et al. 1997:5)
Respect among these indigenous peoples is considered basic to maintaining a healthy relationship between human and non-human beings with whom the environment is shared. In earlier times it was entirely appropriate to consider this relationship as having religious significance, and many Inuit believe that is so today. Anthropologist Carol Zane Jolles, writing about contemporary Iñupiat whaling, has observed that scholars tend to simply emphasize the subsistence importance of whales, without also drawing attention to their equal importance "as an element of a deeply embedded and valued socioreligious identity... [thus] whaling meets needs often identified as religious, spiritual and/or psychological as well as physical" (Jolles 1995:334; see also Freeman et al. 1998:53-56).

The generalized reciprocity (that insures that members of society will always receive food when in need) commonly found in native American societies, extends to non-human beings as well. Thus, hunters and their families have obligations to show respect to those non-human beings that supply their food and other necessities, and in turn, these non-human beings reciprocate by being willing to be taken by worthy human persons. The many ways of demonstrating this worthiness through respect includes following the ethical norms referred to earlier, e.g., by limiting the offtake to quantities required to satisfy legitimate food needs and reducing wasteful practices by such means as developing skill as a hunter, thus reducing the numbers of animals wounded but lost through escape. Clearly then, the benefits to the human community of its hunters having high skill levels contributes to the conservation of the community's important food animals, and hence directly and indirectly to its food security.

Apart from respect which must be shown toward whales in relation to the hunt, celebrating the gift of life-sustaining food the whale has given to the community requires appropriate expression after a successful hunting season. This is most elaborated in several of the Iñupiat whaling communities in North Alaska, where such ceremonies as apugauti (beaching the successful hunters whaling boat at the end of the spring hunting season), aniruq and qinu (the Whale Tail festivals held in spring and fall respectively), qagruq and nalukataq (the main community-wide feasts at the end of whaling, involving the blanket-toss where the skin blanket is the walrus-hide or bearded seal skin-covering of the whaling boat). Traditional drum dancing and feasting occurs as special whale dishes (e.g. mikigak, fermented mattak, and the heart and other parts of the whale) are served (Maggie Ahmagoak, in Jolles 1995:327-328; Freeman et al. 1998:73, 79-80).

This need for respect requires not just appropriate action, but also appropriate thought. Thus, it is considered inappropriate, when setting out on a hunt, for a hunter to believe that he is going to be successful, or that the taking of the animal will be easy or quick, or that a particular number of animals will be taken. Such thoughts imply that animals lack an ability to decide for themselves whether or not to present themselves to the hunter (Fienup-Riordan 1990:169, 172-3; Turner 1991). Thus, in accounting for an unexpected absence of bowhead whales in the vicinity of an Inuvialuit whaling camp in 1991, a whaler's wife explained:

You must not speak of getting an animal on a particular occasion -- if you want it, or say you will get it, you won't have any success... If they want to give themselves they will, if they don't you won't have any success. (Dorothy Arey, in Freeman et al. 1992:57).
That is why a government bureaucracy issuing permits to allow hunters to "take" a whale on a particular occasion, can be seen to be morally-troubling to those who continue to believe strongly in traditional Inuit precepts and beliefs.

Utilizing the food from the hunt in an appropriate manner is considered pleasing to the animal that has offered itself for that purpose (Wenzel 1991:139). This understanding results in the prevailing belief among hunters that food animals must continue to be hunted to remain healthy and abundant, for only by hunting can the hunter demonstrate respect through the exercise of appropriate hunting rituals and food-sharing practices.

Another reason why some hunters do not believe that reducing their hunting will be effective in promoting the recovery of a scarce animal population, is because animals, as non-human beings, possess a spirit (inua), that has to be released after death before another animal can become a vital being. From this indigenous viewpoint, it therefore makes no sense, when animals become locally scarce, to stop hunting them and thereby ceasing to release their spirits (Fienup-Riordan 1990:72-74, 171).

7.2 The basis of sustainable resource use in the Arctic regions

Sustainable use of biological resources has a long history in the Arctic, based on community-based indigenous systems of tenure and, doubtless, the relatively sparse human population. However, because all arctic regions have in recent times come under western science-based state management systems and an increase in human population numbers, the story that is more often heard concerns resource shortage, over-exploitation, and the danger of species extinction (e.g. Macpherson 1981; Theberge 1981; Ludwig et al. 1993; Fienup-Riordan 1999).

In some cases, allegations concerning resource over-use is puzzling to the actual users, who, being close to the resources and in good communication with other resource users, do not perceive these problems:

As Inuit, we have knowledge about animals vanishing for periods of time. From the Elders, we know... all the [marine] mammals, including beluga whales are like that. One day there are many of them -- so they vanish for a period of time and come back later. (Simeonie Akpik, in McDonald et al. 1997:6).

Elders say that any kind of animal moves away for a while but, according to the government, animals are in decline. To the Inuit, they have moved, but not declined... From what I have heard, there used to be lots of walrus here. Now there isn't, but they're not gone. They have just moved... in our community there is a place called Ullikuluk where there hardly used to be any walrus. Now, there are many. The government says they became extinct when really they have just moved. (Peter Alogut, in McDonald et al. 1997:46)

Inuit also point out that despite the increase in their own population numbers, aggregate demand for local wildlife has declined since earlier times when each household supported large numbers of sled dogs and imported foods were much less available or utilized.

According to a team of social scientists studying the sustainable use of marine mammals, there are five important criteria that need to be met for resource use to be sustainable over time (Young et al. 1994). These five conditions are:

1. The user group must share common social and cultural bonds that satisfy a variety of non-material aspects of everyday life.

2. The user group should operate within a reasonable distance of its residential community and within an identifiable territory.

3. Hunting practices must be socially reproducible over time, meaning that local knowledge (including rules and beliefs) is ordinarily passed down from generation to generation within the same community.

4. The hunting practices must be valued by community members multi-dimensionally, meaning such practices should have, inter alia, historical, social, economic, nutritional, symbolic, aesthetic, ceremonial, and spiritual significance.

5. Recognizing that changes to the resource species and the total environment may occur irrespective of human-derived offtake, monitoring of the human/resource complex needs to be on-going so that socially equitable adaptive changes to on-going practices can be effected.


The importance of co-management arrangements is that they seek to institute a regulatory regime that is sensitive to all these above-mentioned five conditions whilst fully involving the local users in co-management activities and decision-making processes. Thus, co-management boards or committees ordinarily have members from the user communities that will be affected by the board's decisions as well as from relevant government departments. In this way it is hoped that actions taken by the board will be both culturally informed and benefit from understandings obtained from the indigenous knowledge and western science-based systems of knowing.

Despite this potential advantages over many state-management arrangements, co-management does not represent a panacea, and inadequacies are often remarked upon in both user communities and in government departments. However, successful examples of co-management certainly exist: the Alaskan Eskimo Whaling Commission [AEWC], established in 1977 to co-manage bowhead whaling in Alaska, is often regarded as one such success story (Freeman 1989; Freeman et al. 1998:123; Jolles 1995:318ff).

Whaling co-management boards also exist in the Canadian Arctic (Goodman 1999). These particular administrative arrangements have resulted from land claim settlements which have devolved areas of governance to the beneficiaries of the claims. Thus, a Fisheries Joint Management Committee assumes regulatory responsibility over all marine-mammal hunting and fishing activities in the Western Canadian Arctic, whilst the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board assumes similar responsibility over hunting, fishing and trapping activities throughout the Central and Eastern Canadian Arctic. Both these bodies are essentially advisory, as are all co-management bodies, with advice going to a federal government minister for approval. However, under the terms of these two land claim agreements, the grounds for the minister to disregard the advice provided are strictly limited: conservation and public safety provide the only basis for the minister to disregard the boards' recommendations, and his reasons for so acting must be provided in writing within a specified time period. So far the minister has accepted advice to allow a resumption of bowhead whaling in both the Western and Eastern Canadian Arctic, and to remove federal quotas on narwhal hunting and quotas earlier in effect in some beluga hunting communities.

In regard to this advice, how could indigenous traditional knowledge improve upon state managers' science-based advice that previously informed the federal minister? The basis for answering this question is to recognize that the information required to ensure the sustainable use of marine mammal stocks, namely, whale population composition, dynamics, and identity, is difficult and expensive to obtain. This situation leads to instances where management decisions are taken on the basis of highly uncertain data, often no more than so-called "educated guesses" made by scientific staff. If such "guesstimates" result in decisions that cause hardship to local users, and further, if scientists findings are in opposition to the local users' perceptions of the local resource situation, then conflicts are inevitable. The case of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission illustrates the evolution of such a problem and its eventual resolution.

8.1 Co-management of bowhead whaling in Alaska

In 1977, the International Whaling Commission [IWC] was advised by U.S. government scientists that the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) population was very small and that an increase in hunting by the Alaskan indigenous whalers was impeding the recovery of this seriously depleted population. The IWC responded by imposing a zero quota on the fishery. The basis for this ban, namely a population estimate of between 600 and 1200 bowhead, was disputed by the bowhead hunters who claimed the population was around 7000 bowhead, a population size they claimed would not be compromised by the existing level of hunting.

The information used by government scientists to estimate the population of bowhead whales was obtained by placing observers on the sea-ice in order to count migrating bowhead swimming in the open-water leads close to the edge of the ice. The reason scientists believed this technique would provide an adequate count was based on their understanding that as whales need air to breathe, they would all be swimming in any open water they could find. During the spring migration, open water off the north coast of Alaska commonly occurs where the moving pack ice of the Arctic Ocean comes into contact with the land-attached sea-ice. It is at this contact point that patches of open water occur and where whales and seals are seen to breathe.

The Iñupiat whalers challenged the scientists on several points, which included the observation that bowhead are not restricted in their migration to the narrow open-water leads, and that the period the observers were on the ice did not correspond to the total duration of the spring bowhead migration. Whalers knew that for at least a hundred kilometres beyond the place where the line of observers stood, areas of open water were to be found far from the edge of the land-fast ice where the observers stood, and in addition, numerous breathing holes made by bowhead whales were to be found in the sea ice. Both sets of observations indicated that a census carried out on that proportion of the whales choosing to migrate within a limited stretch of open water less than a hundred meters wide could not result in a reliable estimate of the total migrating bowhead population.

The hunters further observed that the underside of Arctic Ocean sea-ice is very uneven due to repeated rafting throughout the multi-year life of this sea-ice. This unevenness creates large pockets of air that are utilized by ice-adapted marine mammals, which include bowhead whales. In addition, the ice surface continually breaks as the pressures of its sideways movement build up enormous stresses which can only be relieved by fractures occurring. Following such breaks in the ice surface, new ice will quickly form. However, the new ice for the first day or two remains relatively thin compared to the two or three (or more) meter-thick multi-year ice. When this newly-forming ice is only around 20 or 30 centimetres thick, a bowhead whale pressing its head against the ice causes it to break. Easily identified breathing holes occur in the newly-forming ice at these break lines, with characteristic ice crystals formed by the whales' breath informing the hunters that whales migrate in an easterly direction over a front that is potentially hundreds or thousands of times broader than the area being censused.

The hunters know that after the observers leave the sea ice for reasons of safety at the end of May, bowhead whales continue to be seen migrating east by hunters several hundreds of kilometres to the west. Indeed, to the North Alaskan whalers, there are three waves of migrating bowheads, only one of which is partially observed by the government whale observers. Without any correction factor being applied to their sightings, the scientists' estimate of around 1000 bowhead was clearly meaningless.

Following the establishment of the bowhead co-management regime, whalers' understanding of whale behaviour and biology was used to create a more satisfactory scientific research and monitoring programme for bowhead. As the Chief Scientist of the AEWC has observed:

We try to combine local knowledge with scientific knowledge. Probably the best example of this [was] in 1981, when we actually took over the counting process. We then basically designed the whole research programme around what a few senior Eskimo hunters told us, and in particular one man, Harry Brower, Sr. He very carefully took me under his wing and explained how the animals move through the ice. [That] didn't make a whole lot of sense to an ordinary biologist, because our viewpoint is "I'm afraid of the ice; I'm sure these whales are afraid of ice." But in reality, these whales are not afraid of ice, and that's the key thing. He knew it and the rest of us didn't. We have spent about fourteen years of research and many, many millions of dollars to determine whether or not he was accurate, and he was right every time. (Dr. Thomas Albert, quoted in Freeman et al. 1998:121)
8.2 Toward co-management of beluga in the Canadian Eastern Arctic

A similar disagreement between local hunters and government scientists occurred in the Eastern Canadian Arctic in respect to beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) behaviour and population numbers (Freeman et al. 1998:132-135). Recent satellite tracking of beluga has given support to the hunters' view that beluga found in Cumberland Sound are not necessarily a small resident population, but rather, that the whales sighted at any one time at the head of the Sound are a small, habitat-limited, portion of a large and wide-ranging beluga population. According to the local hunters, the group of around 500 whales counted by scientists at the head of the Sound is being constantly replaced by new arrivals, who in turn are replaced, a process that continues throughout the season. The hunters are able to distinguish different groups of beluga by their skin characteristics, morphology, and swimming and dive characteristics.

In addition, hunters noted that the population of about 500 beluga counted by scientists in 1990 was larger than the population counted in 1986, despite over 400 whales having been taken by hunters in the intervening years. How then, they ask, could their hunting activities lead to the extinction of this population in the next four or five years as the government scientists were claiming?

It is the detailed patient observations made by local resource users over many seasons, augmented with observations made in earlier times and handed down from generation to generation, that gives confidence to the utility of environmental information that users bring to the co-management discussions. The strength of Inuit observations are their understanding of animal behaviour and ecological relationships; the weakness may be in quantitative assessment of population size. However, as the Alaskan bowhead example amply demonstrates, in the case of hard-to-see marine mammals, quantitative assessments can be totally misleading unless combined with a thorough understanding of animal behaviour. The co-management process has the potential to provide this more complete understanding that is the prerequisite for sustainable resource use.


The question of food security among North American small-scale whalers depends to a great extent upon the continued sustainable utilization of the whale populations they hunt. In turn, this sustainability appears to depend upon these societies continuing to maintain a number of social and cultural institutions, practices, and norms that at the present time largely remain operative and effective.

The importance of whaling societies continuing to value the resource stocks they hunt in a multi-dimensional manner appears critical. In the case of the societies included in this study, this appears to be the case: whales are valued in part because of the esteemed food they provide, but also for a number of other reasons. To a significant extent, whales are highly valued because of the social solidarity, physical and psychological wellbeing, and sense of security that derives from successfully hunting, processing, distributing, consuming, and celebrating them.

The ceremonial aspects of whaling are also important for a number of cultural and spiritual reasons, and should not be considered as merely secular recreational, or artistic, activities. Celebrations carried out in connection with whaling are important because of their antiquity and the manner in which they powerfully connect the generations participating in these events with past generations who carried out identical ceremonies. On these occasions the whale is remembered and honoured for its part in insuring the continuity of the culture and the society, and it is respectfully thanked by means of disciplined and symbolically-charged ceremonies.

Indigenous whaling societies across the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic today, are undergoing significant and ongoing change as they have for many centuries. It is reasonable to ask whether these ancient cultural ties to whaling will persist, and for how much longer. A historical perspective allows a positive answer to this question.

A little over a century ago, commercial whalers invaded the hunting territories of Alaskan and Canadian Inuit whalers. What followed was a massively disruptive Inuit population decline caused by introduced epidemic disease, together with technological, dietary, and economic changes occurring at a speed and to a degree never experienced before (or arguably since) in their more than two-thousand year occupation of their homelands. These physical impacts were followed shortly thereafter by unforgiving missionary activity that aimed to sweep away the religious and spiritual foundation of Inuit existence. Since that time, barely a century ago, other social and cultural assaults have occurred: e.g., boom and bust fur trade and mining enterprises; sudden virulent (and often deadly) epidemics of influenza, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, and measles; loss of native languages and dialects; large-scale military and defence initiatives; oil and gas exploration presenting extensive environmental threats; the disruptive impact of alcohol and drugs; animal rights' campaigns ending the fur trapping, the sealskin trade and threatening indigenous whaling, and so forth.

However, none of these perturbations appear to have caused irreversible loss of cultural identity, and, most important, none have caused loss of adaptability which has allowed successive Inuit cultures to survive massive climatic (and more recently, anthropogenic) alterations affecting their world for more than two millenia. Not every element of a peoples' current cultural inventory needs to survive for them to continue functioning as a self-determining people. Cultures are dynamic, adaptive, and resilient; and some elements that become lost can also be re-invented. Core elements of a culture, those that are critical to a peoples' distinctive identity, are perhaps impossible to eradicate by external means -- even when suppressed for extended periods of time as with the two to three-generation hiatus in whaling noted earlier. Hunting and sharing is at the core of Inuit culture, for by no other means could an indigenous people have survived so long and developed such a rich culture in the arctic regions which are their cherished homeland.

The Inuit cultural core is most secure with respect to their whaling culture. This is so because of the degree of food security and multiple other needs that whales provide, the degree of sharing and social solidarity the taking and associated processing and celebrating engenders, and the enrichment of the human spirit that follows from contemplating whales and whale use. It is for these reasons that societies where whales are valued multi-dimensionally and are locally abundant, cannot even consider giving up whaling, for to do so is to surrender their identity, devalue their history, and denigrate their forebears.

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference [ICC], an organization representing the Inuit of Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Russia, recently commissioned an international study of Inuit whaling, whose findings have help inform this case study. At the end of the ICC report, the authors state:

... to Inuit, as to people elsewhere, whales are special. Inuit, through their involvement in international efforts to safeguard the arctic environment and to engage in whale research, monitoring and management, have indicated that arctic whales are their responsibility, and that they will continue to exercise stewardship in regard to these magnificant creatures. This stewardship manifests itself through working with researchers, and government agencies... as well as through spiritual safeguards effected by prayer and traditional rituals... For such determined conservation measures to continue, the culture and and personal commitment of Inuit whale guardians must remain strong. For non-Inuit, the need to understand how their own actions help, or hinder, this front-line conservation effort must be seriously considered. (Freeman et al. 1998:192, emphasis added)
It is to be hoped that governments and inter-governmental bodies will understand that the best interests of the whales and the Inuit whale guardians are inextricably bound together. Indeed, in this instance, Inuit food security and equitable and effective resource management cannot be separated from the ongoing and respectful act of taking whales.


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[1] Paper presented for the FAO Food Security Project
[2] However, Inuit whalers in Greenland -- whether hunting from kayaks with rifles and hand-held harpoons or from steel trawlers equipped with harpoon cannons, regularly offer whale meat and mattak for sale. These cash sales occur either in open-air markets or at food-processing plants which redistribute packaged frozen meat to supermarkets and stores all over Greenland. However, it should be noted that commercial trade of wildlife-derived food and other local products using Danish currency has existed in Greenland for over two-hundred years (Marquardt and Caulfield 1996); the distinction between hunting for economic profit and integrating cash into a hunting society has been dealt with elsewhere (see Lynge 1992:43-48; Caulfield 1997:54-74). In Canada and Alaska -- unlike in Greenland -- imported trade items (rather than cash) were used in barter between Inuit and outside traders, and for a much shorter period of time than was the case in Greenland. In Canada, actual cash usage for most Inuit only began after WW II.
[3] The term "waste" will mean different things in different cultures. A non-indigenous person, is likely to see a partially-flensed whale on the beach as being a "waste" of food and therefore morally bad. However, Inuit would consider this same happening as morally bad only if none of the carcass were used for food. Meat and other edible tissues left on the carcass are not being "wasted", as other non-human beings (e.g., gulls, foxes, crustacea -- and through the recycling of all organic matter, eventually seals and whales) obtain food from the carcass. (See also Fienup-Riordan 1990:174-175; Freeman et al. 1992:67).

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