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June 3, 2002

Inuit whalers lose right to traditional food source

At the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) annual meeting last week, Japan led a move to deny native peoples the whaling rights that they have legally enjoyed since the inception of the commission. Rolland A. Schmitten, the American commissioner, described the decision as “the most unjust, unkind and unfair vote ever taken in the 56 years of IWC history”.

Among the affected peoples are the Chukchi of Russia, and several indigenous peoples of the Americas, including the Inuit inhabitants of Nunavut, the Canadian autonomous territory created in 1999, as well as Eskimos in Alaska. For the Makah, in Washington state, whaling is primarily a ritual, cultural act, while for more northerly peoples, whales provide a substantial portion of the local diet.

Arnold Brower Jr, an Alaskan whaling captain, told BBC News Online that whales constitute more than half of the Inuit diet, the rest being made up of caribou, walrus and other animals whose populations he predicts would be rapidly depleted if whaling came to a halt. The vote essentially condemns the Inuits’ right to obtain a major food source.

The move by Japan came after they were thwarted in an effort to lift the 1986 ban imposed on commercial whaling and were subsequently denied a request to allow a minke whale quota for coastal Japanese communities. The quotas were rejected by the commission on the grounds that such whaling would be used for commercial sale rather than subsistence.

After initially voting down a proposal to allow the Makah to hunt four gray whales a year, Japan approved the request in a re-vote on the May 24. Proposals to allow the Eskimo, Chukchi and other indigenous peoples to hunt whales, which have been approved in previous years, were denied however. Animal rights groups see this as a move toward reopening commercial whaling, as the Makah do not rely on whaling for subsistence, as do peoples such as the Inuit.

US politicians, particularly Alaskans, immediately condemned the vote, denouncing Japan’s move as petty politics in an organization that is meant to be scientific. Most US and Canadian officials have stated that they will continue to enforce existing domestic regulations until the IWC corrects its decision, citing a concern for the physical welfare of indigenous peoples.

Steps are currently being taken to organize a special meeting or a mail ballot in order to re-vote on the issue. Meanwhile, the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, unrepresented in the IWC, must wait for a decision and attempt to defend their right to obtain food in a traditional, sustainable fashion.