When the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was created, allowances were made for aboriginal groups that traditionally depended on whale meat for subsistence purposes. The intention of the IWC was to reduce commercial whaling and its negative effects on both whale populations and aquatic ecosystems while maintaining the rights of certain indigenous groups to continue their traditional practice of whaling.

Since its inception, the IWC has recognised that aboriginal subsistence whaling is of a different nature to commercial whaling. This is reflected in the different objectives for the two. For aboriginal subsistence whaling these are to:

  • ensure risks of extinction not seriously increased (highest priority);
  • enable harvests in perpetuity appropriate to cultural and nutritional requirements;
  • maintain stocks at highest net recruitment level and if below that ensure they move towards it.

While subsistence whaling has occurred for thousands of years without having a substantial ecological impact, the emergence of commercial whaling in the 17th century has significantly effected whale populations. The industrialization of whaling, exacerbated by increasing market demands, globalization, and new technologies, has led many species to be overharvested. Factors besides modern whaling that contribute to declining whale populations include destruction or modification of habitat, disease, pollution, and pesticides entering the water from aquaculture.

The practice of whaling is important to many indigenous groups, such as the Inuit living in the northern regions of North America. Traditionally the Inuit hunt bowhead whales purely for subsistence, and their dependence on whale meat has led it to be an integral part of their cultural beliefs. Because consumption is on a local level and the Inuit held a deep respect for the animal that fed them, it is a sustainable practice. However, the commercial whaling industry has caused strain on the traditional way of life for the Inuits, endangering their primary food source and causing international legislation to be passed prohibiting or reducing the hunting of whales. As whale populations suffer, so do those people who depend on them for basic nutrition.