By Helene O'Barry
On May 23rd 2009, a pod of pilot whales was hunted down with motorized fishing vessels off the coast of Hvalvik, a small town in the Faroe Islands located in the northern Atlantic. Local hunters chased the pilot whales ashore and butchered them with knives and iron hooks. The entire pod was killed, including pregnant females and young offspring. Three such drive hunts, known as grinds, took place in the Faroe Islands in 2009, killing a total of 310 pilot whales. An e-mail has circulated for several years on the Internet about the Faroe Islands hunt, often mislabeled as a hunt in Denmark, complete with graphic photos of the slaughter.
There are two species of pilot whale: the short-finned and the long-finned pilot whale. The pilot whales found in the northeast Atlantic are of the long-finned species (Globicephala melas) and are also known as Calderon Dolphins. Belonging to the dolphin family, pilot whales are second only to the Orca in size. Established by researchers as highly intelligent marine mammals, pilot whales live in extremely cohesive groups that typically consist of adult males and females, as well as related juveniles and calves. A pod of pilot whales is closely united by social and family ties, and females remain with the pod they were born into their entire lives.
The drive hunts in the Faroe Islands usually take place in the summer months when pods approach the islands. It has been met with criticism from animal welfare and environmental organizations worldwide due to the hunting and slaughter methods. These methods exploit the pilot whales’ tight social structure and may involve several hours of chase at sea. When pilot whales are spotted, local fishing vessels gather in a semi-circle behind them and drive the pilot whales toward the shore. As the chase progresses, the hunters throw stones attached to lines into the water just behind the whales. The goal is to force the pilot whales to keep moving forward toward a designated beach until they become stranded. In Taiji of Japan, we have seen how this hunting method sets the dolphins into a state of panic and disorientation whereby the hunters can drive them in whichever direction they want. Oftentimes, however, several pilot whales do not become grounded, and it has been common practice to secure them for slaughter by slamming iron hooks, known as gaffs, into their flesh. It sometimes involves several tries until the iron hook, which is attached to a rope, penetrates deep enough that the hunters can haul the still living and thrashing mammals onto the beach where they are killed, one by one. According to various sources in the Faroe Islands, a newly developed so-called blunt hook, by which the pilot whales are hauled ashore by their super-sensitive blowhole, is being tested. 2 During the slaughter, the sea turns a deep red from injured and dying whales. Pilot whales share a sophisticated communication system and are often heard calling out for one another. Despite all indications that they experience severe physical and psychological suffering, Faroese authorities have made this astounding statement: "... the Faroese whale drive has over the years successfully adapted to modern standards of resource management and animal welfare." 3
The Faroe Islands is an autonomous region of Denmark , and the pilot whale drive hunts have taken place there since the tenth century or earlier. Faroese authorities defend the drive hunts by arguing its tradition and maintaining that the pilot whales are taken for their meat and blubber. The fact remains, however, that the health of the islanders could be in grave danger due to the consumption of pilot whale meat. What is particularly alarming about the drive hunts that took place in 2009 is the fact that they came less than one year after two medical experts of the Faroe Islands warned of the dangers of consumption. In August of 2008, Chief Physician Pál Weihe and Chief Medical Officer Høgni Debes Joensen issued a joint press statement in which they announced that pilot whale blubber and meat are contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury and the slowly degradable PCBs as well as DDE, a by-product of the insecticide DDT. The high levels of toxins in the whales’ meat and blubber have been linked to serious health threats, such as increased incidents of Parkinson’s disease in adults, damage to fetal neural development and impaired immunity in children. Weihe and Joensen conclude that "pilot whales today contain contaminants to a degree that neither meat nor blubber would comply with current limits for acceptable concentrations of toxic contaminants." They recommend that "pilot whale [should be] no longer used for human consumption."
The pilot whale hunts of 2009 subjected entire families of pilot whales to tremendous stress, anguish and physical pain. As a result of the hunts, households in the Faroe Islands were infiltrated with tons of toxic whale meat. It is incomprehensible that the Faroese government would jeopardize the health of their own people by rejecting the recommendations of their two medical experts. The Save Japan Dolphins campaign hereby calls on the Faroese Government to suspend the pilot whale drive hunts with immediate effect.
Faroe Islands Quick Facts:
The Faroe Islands, or Faeroes, consists of 18 islands located between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. They have a population of about 48,000 on 17 islands.
The Faroe Islands is an autonomous region of Denmark and has its own parliament, language and flag.
According to the Home-Rule Act of 1948, the Faroe Islands constitutes a self-governing community within the Danish Kingdom . A long list of items specified in the Home-Rule Act is regarded as special Faroese concerns. Among them are "territorial hunting" and "protection of animals." 4
The Faroe Islands, unlike Denmark , is not a member of the EU.
According to the Faroe Islands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an average of 685 pilot whales were caught annually during the ten year period of 1998-2007. For reasons unknown to us, no pilot whales were killed from August 2007 to January 2009. Three drive hunts took place in 2009, killing 310 pilot whales.
Pilot Whale Quick Facts:
Long-finned pilot whales live in close-knit social groups of related individuals. Family pods of pilot whales sometimes congregate into larger groups, and often groups of several hundred mammals are seen swimming together. Some researchers believe that the pilot whales’ strong social bonds explain why this dolphin species is seen in mass standings more frequently than any other.
The pilot whales’ tight family bonds work against them during the drive hunt. As phrased by the Faroe Islands Department of Fisheries in 1993: "A school of pilot whales keeps close together, and for this reason the entire school is usually taken."
1. Home page of "Statistics Faroe Islands:"
2. NAMMCO recommendations – Workshop on Hunting Methods for Marine Mammals.
3. "Whales and Whaling in the Faroe Islands:"
4. Home Rule Act of the Faroe Islands, No. 137 of March 23, 1948, List A, Item 13.