The Atlantic white-sided dolphin catch on Sunday 12 September has raised some issues about Atlantic white-sided dolphin catches, e.g. the number of dolphins taken in a single drive and hunting methods in dolphin drives. The situation on 12 September was extraordinary, mainly because the pod was several times larger than is usually the case. The pod outnumbered the second largest pod ever by more than three times, which resulted in severe difficulties once the animals had reached the bay.
The pilot whale hunt, also known as “grind,” is an ancient and integral part of Faroese food culture. But pilot whales and dolphins are different, they have very different roles in our society. Atlantic white-sided dolphin hunts have not been a part of Faroese tradition to the same degree and do not have the same cultural legitimacy.
“We take this matter very seriously. Although these hunts are considered sustainable, we will be looking closely at the dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society. The government has decided to start an evaluation of the regulations on the catching of Atlantic white-sided dolphins,” says Prime Minister Bárður á Steig Nielsen.
Faroese whaling in context
As an island nation the Faroe Islands have a strong commitment to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 – to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. The Government of the Faroe Islands underlines the right and responsibility of the Faroese people to utilize the resources of the sea sustainably.
Traditional means of food production from local resources are an important supplement to the livelihoods of Faroe Islanders. These include mountain grazing sheep, coastal fishing for household use and occasional catches of pilot whales and other small cetaceans.
These food resources have enabled the Faroe Islands as an island nation to maintain a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency in food production. In the Faroe Islands it is considered both economically and environmentally responsible to make the most of local natural resources, and to maintain the knowledge required to make use of what nature provides in a harsh oceanic environment.
Pilot whales and other small whales represent one of few local sources of meat that does not have to be imported from afar. The meat from each whale drive provides valuable food, which is distributed for free in the local communities where the whale drives take place, food that would otherwise have to be imported from sources in other countries.
The Faroese pilot whale drive
Many different species of whales and dolphins occur in the waters around the Faroe Islands, most of which are protected by law. The commonly occurring pilot whales (Globicephala melas) are taken for their meat and blubber in whale drives which are organised at the community level and regulated by national legislation and regulations.
The annual catch is on average 600 pilot whales. It has long since been internationally recognised that pilot whale catches in the Faroe Islands are sustainable and the stock of pilot whales in the Northeast Atlantic is abundant.
The Faroe Islands cooperate internationally through NAMMCO – the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission - on the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. NAMMCO is an inter-governmental organisation which provides for political, scientific, and technical cooperation on marine mammal conservation and management in the North Atlantic.
Regular international scientific sighting surveys in the North Atlantic since 1987 have provided valuable information from which to estimate and monitor the stock abundance of different whale species. The Faroe Islands participate actively in these surveys, with comprehensive coverage across the Faroe Plateau and adjacent areas.
Whale drives are only initiated when whales are sighted by chance close to land. The organisation of participants, both in boats and on shore, is crucial in ensuring an effective whale drive. Prevailing weather and tidal conditions will also have a bearing on whether and where a group of whales can be driven and beached. Whale drives in the Faroe Islands mainly occur from May to September.
Faroese whale drives are a dramatic sight to people unfamiliar with the slaughter of mammals. The hunts are, nevertheless, well organised, and fully regulated. Faroese animal welfare legislation, which also applies to whaling, stipulates that animals shall be killed as quickly and with as little suffering as possible.
A developed spinal lance is a regulatory equipment for the killing of pilot whales. The lance is used to sever the spinal cord of the whale, which also severs the major blood supply to the brain, ensuring both loss of consciousness and death of the animal within seconds. The spinal lance has been shown to reduce killing time to 1-2 seconds, while also improving accuracy and safety. Normally, an entire pod of whales is killed in less than fifteen minutes.
White-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) are also a commonly occurring and abundant species around the Faroe Islands. Individual animals occasionally occur together with schools of pilot whales, while separate schools are also sometimes driven and beached, and fully utilised for human consumption. The driving and killing of dolphins in the Faroe Islands are subject to the same regulatory framework as pilot whales and must be carried out accordingly.
Faroe Islanders catch annually on average approximately 250 white-sided dolphins. But as with pilot whales, the number fluctuates from year to year. The Faroese catch of white-sided dolphins is also considered to be sustainable, based on the latest abundance estimate.
The evolution of whaling in the Faroe Islands
The Government of the Faroe Islands underlines the importance it has always placed on dialogue, freedom of speech and the democratic right of all citizens, both in the Faroe Islands and in all other countries, to express their views openly. The Government of the Faroe Islands promotes openness and informed discussion about whales and whaling.
In recent decades, dedicated measures have been taken to improve hunting methods and animal welfare in whale drives. Innovations and improvements to the equipment used in Faroese whaling, such as the blowhole hook and the spinal lance, have been developed on the initiative of experienced participants in the whale drive.
Statistics on whale catches in the Faroe Islands can be found here:
Further information on whaling in the Faroe Islands is available on www.whaling.fo.