Long-finned pilot whales have been hunted for human consumption in the Faroe Islands (a small Danish territory located between Scotland and Iceland in the North Atlantic) since the first human settlement of the islands. As the islands evolved into a vibrant, modern economy with other food readily available, the so-called “drive hunts” or “grinds” have not faded away, but rather have endured at high levels. In fact, the hunt reached depressing new lows this summer, as islanders killed far more whales than they could possibly (or safely) consume, targeted new dolphin species—including the slaughter of 480 white-sided dolphins in a single day—and employed even more inhumane killing methods.
High levels of contaminants in pilot whales pose such a threat to Faroese consumers that the islands’ chief physician and chief medical officer recommended in 2008 that pilot whale meat no longer be used for human consumption. However, despite the well-documented connection between maternal exposure to whale meat and neurological delays and cardiovascular problems in Faroese children and an elevated risk of hypertension, arteriosclerosis and Parkinson’s disease in adults who consume the whales, the Faroese government refuses to ban consumption—or the hunts. Instead, it advises that one or two pilot whale meals per month are safe for all but children and young, pregnant or breast-feeding women to consume.
Either this advice goes unheeded, or a huge amount of whale meat (which is given out for free) is wasted—never distributed or, as we suspect, thrown out of freezers when fresh meat becomes available. This summer’s hunts of more than 1,200 whales and dolphins will have yielded hundreds of metric tons of meat and blubber, far more than 30,000 adult male and post-reproductive female consumers in the Faroe Islands could possibly consume.
During Faroese drive hunts, whales are herded by motor boats into a bay, where men waist-deep in water either jab sharp-ended hooks into the whales’ flesh or jam blunt hooks into blowholes, to drag the thrashing animals onto the shore and restrain them so that a spinal lance can be used to sever the main artery to the brain. However, on at least one occasion this summer, such a large group of whales was driven into a bay that many had to be killed in the water, where restraint is difficult and the spinal lance ineffective. As grisly photographs attest, the slaughter of 267 pilot whales on July 30 lasted at least an hour and a half, causing unimaginable suffering, as well as acute distress to the whales watching, hearing and smelling the carnage as family members were killed around them.
AWI and others swiftly petitioned the authorities to investigate the management of this particular hunt and immediately ban the taking of large groups of whales, but our long-term goal is the permanent end of Faroese grinds. We are working with other animal welfare and conservation groups to launch a campaign to bring an end to a brutal and obsolete tradition that the Faroese public are risking their own lives to preserve.