The aftermath of a pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands, August, 2015. Photo credit: Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Global

The Faroe Islands is one of the few places left on the planet where pilot whales and dolphins are slaughtered for meat. Locals claim that the hunt is sustainable, a cultural tradition, and is no worse than factory farmed animal slaughter; conservationists condemn the hunt as cruel, unnecessary and unsustainable. So, which is it?

Cruelty Or Culture

The Faroe Islands is a self-governing archipelago located between the U.K. and Iceland that is part of the Kingdom of Denmark and home to about 50,000 people. Because the islands are remote and quite barren, the Faroese have relied on the ocean, and specifically pilot whales, for food, blubber and other biomaterials for about 1,000 years. While certain elements of the whale hunts (called grindadráp, or grind) have changed with the invention of technology – most notably motorized boats and radios – the overall process hasn’t changed all that much over the millennium: driving pilot whales into a shallow bay where they’re killed with knives.

Pod of pilot whales herded to shore near the village of Bøur, July 2015. Photo credit: Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Global

The images of the hunt are disturbing: men waste deep in the bloody ocean, pulling whales to shore with metal hooks; blood spurting from knife wounds like scarlet blowholes; pilot whale carcasses laid out side by side on cement lots, guts spilling out.

The hunt at Sandavágur beach, August 2015, which killed 61 pilot whales. Photo credit: Cris Cely / Sea Shepherd
The water turned blood red during a hunt in August 2015. Photo credit: Mayk Wendt / Sea Shepherd

For conservationists, the brutality of the hunt has long been an issue.

“One of the key things about the hunt is that it is inherently cruel,” explained Jennifer Lonsdale who, together with the other co-founders of the Environmental Investigation Agency, traveled to the Faroe Islands in 1984 to compile one of the first full documentation of the hunt.

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“When you have hundreds of whales being driven into a bay, you can’t expect to kill them all at once, and you’re going to have individuals that are swimming around in the blood of their relatives… it’s a close-knit community living together and suddenly they’re all slaughtered.”

Pilot whales lined up after a hunt, June 2015. Photo credit: Rosie Kunneke / Sea Shepherd Global

The Faroese have a different perspective: the grinds are a natural way to provide for themselves: “Ethically, I don’t see the difference between slaughtering wild whales and farmed cows. All animals suffer: if you can slaughter cows for meat, why not slaughter wildlife?” wrote Heri Joensen, a Faroese musician who participates in the hunts, in an op-ed published last year in The Spectator. “When the hunt is over, all participants get a share of the meat, and if there’s enough left over, locals receive a share too.”

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Joensen explained that after a grind, he took home about 150 pounds of pilot whale meat, equivalent to about $1,000.

Bloody waters at Hvannasund, in the Faroe Islands, after a whale hunt in June 2015. Photo credit: Nils Greskewitz / Sea Shepherd Global

For conservationists, the argument that whaling is no worse than farmed meat doesn’t justify the cruelty of the hunt. “I don’t know if I can really say that one is worse than the other,” said Lonsdale, referring to raising pigs for slaughter and hunting pilot whales. “But I also don’t think you can say that one is justifiable because the other is justifiable, and there’s cruelty associated with both of them.” She also pointed out that as the Faroe Islands isn’t isolated anymore and imports food and goods from across the world, the Faroese no longer need to rely on pilot whales for their meat. “It isn’t a matter of survival anymore,” she said.

Questionable Sustainability

While the other major whaling nations – Iceland, Japan and Norway – have commercial whaling industries, no one earns a living whaling on the Faroe Islands. Instead, local residents are some of the main participants in a grind. The hunts also aren’t really organized in advance, and take place only when the opportunity presents itself: first a pod of pilot whales needs to swim close to shore, and near enough to one of the 23 beaches on the island that are approved as landing sites; then the weather has to be right: calm enough to allow the hunters to go out in their small boats; and lastly, the local sheriff has to give approval for the hunt to go ahead.

A pod being forced to beach at Bøur, July 2015. Photo credit: Eliza Muirhead / Sea Shepherd Global

There’s no maximum annual quota enforced across the island and most of the decisions regarding the grinds take place at the local level; one of the largest factors considered is whether there’s a surplus of demand for pilot whale meat in the community. This opportunistic and loosely regulated hunting style means that the number of pilot whales caught and killed varies significantly from year to year; for example, in 2009 less than 500 pilot whales and dolphins were taken, while the next year over 1,000 pilot whales and dolphins were killed.

The average, over the past three centuries, is a little over 800 pilot whales and about 75 dolphins each year, according to a 2012 study.

A grind at Sandavágur, August 2015. Photo credit: Cris Cely / Sea Shepherd

With these figures in mind, the Faroese claim that the grinds aren’t negatively impacting the region’s pilot whale population. According to the Faroe Islands official whaling website, “scientists estimate that the pilot whale population in the eastern North Atlantic is about 778,000 whales, with approximately 100,000 around the Faroe Islands.” And, given that “the Faroese hunt on average 800 pilot whales annually,” the grinds are sustainable.

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The Faroe Islands’ population estimates do line up with those of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, the last population survey for pilot whales in the area was conducted in 1997, and pilot whales’ conservation status is designated by the IUCN as data deficient, meaning that there isn’t enough information to determine exactly how threatened they are.

“They [the Faroese government] claim the hunts are sustainable, but they don’t have the evidence to support that,” said Brett Sommermeyer, Legal Director of Sea Shepherd Legal which has been actively campaigning against the grinds since the 1980s. Sommermeyer pointed out that as with many highly migratory marine species, there is a dearth of population data when it comes to pilot whales, and without this information it’s hard to know the full impact of grinds. “The other issue that goes into sustainability is something that’s not addressed very much, and that’s when they kill these pods of whales, they’re taking out entire family groups,” explained Sommermeyer. “You’re removing all that genetic material… so it’s not just a matter of numbers but also about the quality of what you’re removing.”

Lonsdale echoed Sommermeyer’s concerns and also pointed out that the world has changed quite a bit since 1997; pollution, climate change, and commercial fishing are surely negatively impacting pilot whale populations, we just don’t know how much. “At the same time as the cruelty issue, you’ve got this lack of knowledge on the sustainability of the pilot whale populations that are passing through the Faroe Islands,” said Lonsdale. “There is a big lack of information which is a huge issue.”

Conservation Efforts To Stop Hunts

Over the years, as the Faroese have stood fast to their tradition of whaling, they’ve faced increasing opposition from conservation groups. One of the most active organizations is Sea Shepherd, which is famous for using aggressive but effective methods to dissuade whaling across the globe.

Sea Shepherd’s boat, the Sam Simon, in the Faroe Islands, June 2015. Photo credit: Iraultza Izquierdo / Sea Shepherd Global

In 2014, Sea Shepherd began using the Faroese’s own tactics against them: while the Faroese use boats to herd the pilot whales into shore, Sea Shepherd used their boats to shepherd the pilot whales back out to the open ocean. This tactic proved to be highly effective: in 2014, less than 50 pilot whales and zero white-sided dolphins were killed; the year before 1,104 pilot whales and 430 white-sided dolphins were killed.

A Sea Shepherd boat escorts a pod of dolphins away from the Faroe Islands. Photo credit: Ayesha D’souza / Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd’s method might have been too effective; in 2015 the Danish Navy was called in to help the Faroese and protect the grinds. According to Sea Shepherd, Danish boats blocked Sea Shepherd boats from entering Faroese waters, and police forces seized boats and arrested crew. There is now a law in place which makes it illegal to interfere with a grind.

Five Sea Shepherd volunteers arrested in the Faroe Islands, August 2015. Photo credit: Marianna Baldo / Sea Shepherd

Still, Sea Shepherd is far from giving up; in May of 2017, the organization filed an infringement proceeding against Denmark with the European Commission. The claim argues that as the killing, harming or harassment of Cetaceans (which includes pilot whales and dolphins) is banned across Europe under the Habitats Directive, Denmark, through its facilitation and protection of the grinds, is violating the Habitats Directive.

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“The same pilot whales that swim in Faroe Islands waters also swim in E.U. waters,” said Sommermeyer, “and if a Danish person killed that pilot whale in E.U. waters [and the Danish government supported the killing], Denmark would be guilty…under the Habitats Directive.”

If Sea Shepherd is successful, the Danish Navy will no longer be allowed to provide naval support and protection for the grinds, and conservation groups will be able to restart activity on the island. Such a ruling would also likely be an embarrassment to Denmark, and might precipitate a change in their attitude towards the Faroe Islands.

“If there’s agreements and laws and regulations in place, and the whole European Commission, apart from Denmark, is against whaling, why do the Faroese still proceed with it, why does Denmark condone it?” asked Geert Vons, Director of Sea Shepherd Netherlands. “You have to make a stand.”

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It’s important to note that while the Faroe Islands is part of the Kingdom of Denmark, it’s not part of the European Union, and so the infringement proceeding is against Denmark but not the Faroe Islands directly.

The Toxic Problem: PCB And Mercury 

Although international pressure continues to grow against the grinds, the hunts may be stopped for another reason altogether: contamination. Alarming levels of toxins, including PCBs and mercury, have been found in whale meat and blubber in recent years. Among the slew of potential health hazards linked to these toxins are cancer, infertility, and suppression of the immune system.

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The result is that in 1977, the Chief Medical Officer of the Faroes advised the general population to limit the consumption of pilot whale to only one main meal weekly and avoid eating the liver and kidneys. Since 1980, pregnant women have been advised to limit their consumption of pilot whale meat and blubber. Then, in 2012, the Chief Medical Officer released a study advising that pilot whale meat no longer be consumed by humans because of the increasing contamination:

The growing scientific documentation has, during recent years, given rise to the anticipation that the time was approaching when it would be appropriate to recommend against any human consumption of pilot whale meat and blubber. From the latest research results, the authors consider that the conclusion from a human health perspective must be to recommend that pilot whale is no longer used for human consumption.

Pilot whales are far from the only marine animals that are experiencing extreme levels of contamination. A study published in the journal Nature in 2016 analyzed the blubber of over 1,000 European dolphins and killer whales for traces of PCBs. The report found that PCB contamination in these animals “greatly exceed concentrations at which severe toxic effects are known to occur,” and that “despite regulations and mitigation measures to reduce PCB pollution, their biomagnification in marine food webs continues to cause severe impacts among cetacean top predators in European seas.” Just last year, a killer whale was found washed up on a Scottish island with some of the highest levels of PCBs ever recorded.

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The contamination and the advice of the Chief Medical Officer seem to be chipping away at the popularity of pilot whale meat; while it has traditionally been a staple of the Faroese diet, pilot whale is transitioning to the role of symbolic food for special occasions. Still, the grinds are far from a thing of the past; since 2000, over 14,000 pilot whales and dolphins have been killed and already 617 pilot whales and 61 white sided dolphins have been killed this year.

The beauty of the Faroe Islands, with a small boat cruising in clear water. Photo credit: Enric Gener / Sea Shepherd Global

“Even if you take away the sustainability issue and the cruelty of the hunts, they still shouldn’t be eating it [pilot whale] because of the health implications,” said Lonsdale. “I hope that at some point in the near future they decide that they really will stop.”