Whaling in the Faroe Islands

From Academic Kids

The type of whaling in the Faroe Islands is amongst the most controversial of all whaling operations currently occurring each year.



Around one thousand Long-finned Pilot Whales are killed in the annual whale drive (or "grind") by the Faroese fishermen each year. The drive works by surrounding the whales with a wide semi-circle of boats and slowly coaxing (or driving) them into a bay and then onto beach. The drive has been practiced since the tenth century and records exist in part since 1584, and continuously from 1709 - the longest period of time for statistics exist of any wild animal hunt in the world. The drive remains highly controversial as environmentalists say that the drive is unacceptably cruel. Such is the importance of the drive in Faroese culture that the Faroese word for sighting a group of whales is the same as that as for the grind.

A threat to the whale population?

Debate rages about the whether the hunt represents a significant threat to Pilot Whale populations. The size of the North-east Atlantic population itself is a subject of debate. The figure accepted by the International Whaling Commission Scientific Committee is the 778,000 animals obtained by the North Atlantic Sightings Survey in 1995. Those in favour of whaling, such as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) in their 1997 and 1999 report on the hunt (available in PDF here (, say that this is a conservative estimate whilst those opposed to the hunt, such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society say it is an over-estimate. If the estimate is accepted, the average kill of the last ten years (950 animals per year), then the cull represents little more than 0.1% of the population, which scientists say is sustainable.

As the long-term records indicate that the number of whales caught in each year has remained relatively stable for such a long time, the whaling community say that the global population must have remained fairly steady. Those opposed to the whaling disagree; saying that the technology used to capture the hunt has improved (motor boats instead of rowing boats, and telescopes to see the animals from a further distance) and thus a greater proportion of animals can be driven with the same manpower.

The killing process

Because the Pilot Whales are killed on the beach by cutting their main arteries, the surrounding sea tends to turn a spectacular bloody red. Anti-whaling campaigners are quick to use this vivid imagery to argue that the drive is cruel.

Once the whales have been driven close to the shore of a bay by boats forming a semi-circle behind them, the whaling foreman drops a rope into the water weighted by stones. With this, the whales are forced onto the beach. It is not permitted to take whales on the ocean-side of this rope. Most of the whales beach themselves. Those that remain unbeached have historically been stabbed in the blubber with a sharp hook, called a gaff, and then pulled to the shore. Responding to allegations of cruelty, the whalers have begun using blunt gaffs and, instead of stabbing the whale, putting the hook inside the blow-hole of the whale. Anti-whaling groups such as Greenpeace and the WDCS have not been satisfied with this solution either saying that the partial blocking and irritation of the airway causes pain and panic in the animal.

Once ashore the Pilot While is killed by cutting the dorsal area through to the spinal cord. The length of time it takes an animal to die is also the subject of much debate. The High North Alliance says that the time taken to kill is less than two minutes. The WDCS says that this period may considerably lengthier if the whaler is not expert, for instance if he does not cut deeply enough.

Health issues

Because whales occupy a high trophic level (i.e. are high in the food chain) mercury and chemical pollutants such as PCBs tend to accumulate in their bodies. Although scientists do not yet fully understand what danger this represents either the whales themselves or to people eating the whales, the Faroese Health Authority has issued advice saying that no-one should eat whale meat more than twice per month and that pregnant women should consider avoid eating it all together because of the believed increased risk of mis-carriage.



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