Other Whaling

Faroe Islands - Pilot Whales

Once again this year many people have been horrified by images of the slaughter of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.  The kill occurs a number of times annually and has proved to be difficult to deal with because of the remoteness of the location and the determination of the Faroe Islanders to continue the activity.

Pilot whales
The small cetacean targeted by the Faroe Island hunt is the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas) generally referred to simply as the pilot whale and occasionally as the caldron dolphin because of its Spanish common name, Caldron Negro.

Due to a lack of data about long-finned pilot whales globally the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the species as "Data Deficient".  While the International Whaling Commission is primarily concerned with large whales, it does consider small cetacean issues and has determined that the Faroese pilot whale catch is "probably sustainable" at present.

However, their long-term viability may yet be influenced by additional factors including entanglement in commercial fishing gear, competition with squid fisheries, increasing contamination levels and possible effects of climate change on the marine ecosystem. 

Key Facts
The Faroe Islands (pronounced the same as an Egyptian pharaoh) are located in the north Atlantic Ocean to the north of Scotland, about half way between Norway and Iceland.

Comprised of 18 islands with a total area of approximately 1,400 square kilometres.

Settled by Vikings (Norse) around 820 AD.

Commenced taking pilot whales early, as shown by archaeological records, mainly for meat and blubber (food and oil) but also used in making ropes and lines, floats, shoes and sewing thread.  Used to be important for survival, but not so today.

Many other peoples used similar methods centuries ago, including the inhabitants of the Orkney and Shetland Islands, a few hundred kilometres to the south.  However, these hunts were discontinued as civilisation progressed and standards of living improved.

The island group is part of the Kingdom of Denmark and has been a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark since 1948.

Supported financially by Denmark with an annual subsidy equivalent to about 15% of GDP (>$100 million).

A modern society, with living standards similar to from Denmark and other Scandinavian countries.

Pilot whale hunt or "Grind"
The annual take of pilot whales varies but averages about 1,000 animals.  Methods of hunting and the distribution of the catch are regulated by Faroe Island public authorities.

The grind can take place whenever pilot whales venture close to shore and weather conditions are favourable, though these circumstances most often occur during July and August.

Boats assemble behind the pod and herd it towards a suitable bay, preferably one with a gently sloping shoreline, with the hunters remaining relatively quiet at first but making noise and splashing the water's surface as they near the shallows.

The pod is driven quickly towards the shore, and beached if possible.

Whales that are not beached are secured, usually either by driving a whaling hook into the blubber and muscle of the whale's melon (front of the head) or neck, or by a blunt hook inserted into the air sacs of the blowhole.  The whale is then hauled to shore to be slaughtered.

A whaling knife is used to cut through the back of the neck, working down to sever both the spinal cord and the main blood supply to the brain.

The meat and blubber are distributed to Faroese citizens according to local regulations and agreements.

An inhumane death
It is true that some efforts have been made to lessen the suffering of the pilot whales.  Until relatively recently whalers used hand harpoons and spears as well.  However, in 1986, the harpoon was formally banned and the use of the whale spear was restricted.  The spear was outlawed completely in 1995.

Also the Faroese Animal Welfare Act (1985) requires local police and veterinary authorities to ensure whales are killed if their suffering would be prolonged by being kept alive.

Despite these improvements however, the level of suffering experienced by these animals, in the name of tradition, is unacceptable in the 21st century.  The whales become highly stressed from being rounded up, chased and driven ashore.  Many are injured by boat hulls and propellers in the panic that ensues.  Those not first to be put to death are left to thrash about in water crimson with blood, listening to the calls of other pod members until they themselves are set upon and butchered.

Not pilot whales alone
Less widely known is the fact that Faroese legislation also permits the killing of bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic white-beaked dolphins Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbour porpoise.  Most are captured and slaughtered in the same locations and using the same methods as for pilot whales.  The exception is the harbour porpoise, which are killed with shotguns.

A small number of bottlenose whales are also taken opportunistically, often if they venture into shallow waters or become accidentally stranded.

Human wellbeing concerns
A top-line predator, pilot whales have been shown to accumulate high levels of contaminants such as mercury in the meat and organs and organochlorines in the blubber. The possible long-term effects of these contaminant levels on Faroe Islanders are of increasing concern locally. In fact, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Agency has already advised against the consumption of pilot whale liver and kidney (traditionally eaten) due to particularly high mercury concentrations in these organs.

What can I do?
Write to Denmark's official representative in Australia stating (politely) your concern about the Faroe Island pilot whale hunt:
Her Excellency Mrs Susanne Wagner Hoffmann
Royal Danish Embassy
15 Hunter Street  
Yarralumla   ACT   2600

Write to the Prime Minister of Denmark:

The Hon Lars Lokke Rasmussen
Prime Minister
Prins Jorgens Gard 11
1218 Copenhagen K
E-mail: stm@stm.dk

Write to the Australian Prime Minister urging him to take the matter up with the Government of Denmark and also to have the matter given higher priority at the next meeting of the International Whaling Commission:
The Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP
Prime Minister
Parliament House
Email: http://www.pm.gov.au/contact_your_pm


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