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A Bloody Tradition

On September 12th, OPS received grim news of one of the largest dolphin hunts ever to occur in the recorded history of the Faroe Islands. Over 1400 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were driven into Skala Fjord on the Island of Eysturoy.

Over the past several decades, a handful of conservation organizations have actively worked to end to these hunts, deploying strategies ranging from direct confrontation to building bridges within the Faroese community with the hope of fostering understanding and compassion for the dolphins who are driven into numerous whaling bays scattered throughout the islands.

OPS condemns these hunts that serve as a brutal reminder that we have a very long way to go to ensure the protection and welfare of these sentient ocean-dwellers.

Where are the Faroe Islands? The Faroe Islands are a group of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean halfway between Iceland and Norway. They are comprised of 17 inhabited islands and many islets and reefs.  They are a self-governing autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark.

What kind of hunts take place in the Faroe Islands? Like the whale and dolphin hunts in Taiji, the ‘grinds’ (short for grindadraps) are also drive hunts that involve high speed vessels driving and corralling groups of pilot whales and other dolphin species into a shallow cove where they can be slaughtered by whalers. Unlike Taiji, members of the local community can take part in these hunts, including both the chase and the killing. These hunts are a centuries-old tradition, once relied upon as a food source but becoming more commercial in nature. The meat from the whales is divided up among the local community where the hunts occurred, and any surplus is shared with other communities or sold in supermarkets. Every person who has taken part in the drive or the kill—from the boat or shore—has a right to a share of the catch. Just like in Taiji, the meat is contaminated by mercury and other heavy metals.

Why do these hunts continue in a modern society? The answer is complex, and requires a look at the political and cultural aspects of this so-called tradition. The Faroese have for centuries killed pilot whales, and the pilot whale has in many ways been an important part of Faroese life in regard to both food and culture. This island nation was once entirely reliant upon the sea for survival, but modernity within the Faroes means communities are not even remotely reliant upon whale meat as a food source and are as far from a subsistence existence as any other modern European country.

Why doesn’t the EU or an international governing body prohibit the hunts? The Faroe Islands’ drive hunts are not subject to international control as they target small species of whales (mainly pilot whales and some dolphin species) that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) does not currently manage. As the Faroe Islands are not members of the European Union, they are not subject to European legislation that forbids whale hunting. Therefore, there are no legal mechanisms currently available to prevent the hunt.

Have there been health implications from the consumption of pilot whale meat? These hunts continue, despite health recommendations stemming from 2008 that have declared pilot whale meat unfit for human consumption. Pilot whales in this region—the main species targeted—carry high levels of mercury and persistent organic compounds in their meat and blubber. Long term independent studies of children in the Faroe Islands have directly linked neurological delays, cardiovascular problems, and other development problems to their mothers’ pre-natal consumption of whale meat. In addition, recent studies have shown a direct link between the occurrence of Parkinson’s disease, arteriosclerosis, and Type II diabetes in Faroese adults eating pilot whale meat.

Are the killing methods the same as in the Taiji drive hunts? In fact, the ‘new’ killing tool (spinal lance) that has been developed by the Faroese has been adapted and has informed the tool being used in the dolphin drive hunts in Taiji, Japan. One significant difference is that the killing tool utilized in the Taiji hunts involves a wooden dowel that is used to plug the wound to avoid blood loss in the water, effectively prolonging suffering.  The Faroese spinal lance is used primarily in the pilot whale hunts, and a killing knife is used for dispatching other dolphin species.

Although new whaling regulations were implemented in 2015 to introduce new killing methods and training intended to reduce killing times, due to the chaotic and uncontrolled nature of these hunts, such measures remain inadequate to reduce and eliminate the suffering associated with these hunts. An analysis of this killing method was published in a scientific journal and discredits claims that these methods are improved or humane; and other studies reveal the devastating impact of the chase and herding of whales and dolphins during the hunts. Anyone wishing to take part in whaling needs a license to do so and is required to take a special training course on killing methods.

Pilot whales exhibit complex social behaviors, strong family bonds, and even culture.  As highly evolved and sentient creatures, the chase, herding and killing process inflicts fear and distress, as well as prolonged physical suffering on these animals. Additionally, the killing of entire family groups in front of one another, including pregnant and nursing females, raises serious ethical questions, especially when these hunts no longer provide essential or even safe food.

Entire family groups are rounded up and driven to the shore. Once they beach, blunt-ended metal hooks inserted into their blowholes are used to drag the whales up the beach or in the shallows, where they are killed with a knife or lance cut to their major blood vessels. OPS believes that the driving, dragging and killing, all of which takes place within view of their pod members, is intensely stressful and cruel.

What species are taken in the grinds? The dolphin drive hunts in the Faroe Islands target toothed whales and dolphins, including long-finned pilot whales (short-finned pilot whales are hunted in Taiji), Risso’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and bottlenose whales.

How many dolphins are taken every year?  Annually, about 600 pilot whales and 250 white-sided dolphins are killed in the grinds—but the numbers fluctuate broadly.  These hunts usually occur over the summer months and into early Fall, but pilot whales can found year round in Faroese waters.  Thus far, eleven separate hunts have occurred in 2021 (not including the recent dolphin hunt in Skala Fjord), killing at least 615 pilot whales. Combined with the recent dolphin hunt, at least 2,043 dolphins and pilot whales have been killed this year. 20 years of catch data can be found here.

What is OPS doing to address the drive hunts in the Faroe Islands? We believe that to change unsustainable and cruel practices requires a variety of approaches. There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution.  We do not align ourselves with violent or confrontational tactics primarily because these methods have only served to entrench nationalistic attitudes and add fire to the intensity and duration of the hunts.  In more recent years, our campaigning against the hunt has taken a lower profile in the belief that overt and vociferous public pressure has only encouraged the hunts to continue and increase in response to public outcry.

We are supporting an artist and filmmaker who has been working with Faroese children over the past several years, inspiring a love for nature and wildlife—including whales and dolphins—and sowing the seeds for a more hopeful future. Unlike in Taiji where the dolphin hunts are conducted by a relatively small number of fishermen, the entire local community can participate in the grinds on the Faroe Islands. Families can watch and even participate in the killing if registered and trained. Seeing young children playing among the dead and lifeless bodies of dolphins is a familiar sight after these hunts are conducted, and these hunts are considered a normal part of Faroese culture.

We are focused on changing hearts and minds within the Faroe Islands, and our campaigns, while not always visible to the public, involve the nurturing of relationships within the Faroe Islands. Like in Taiji, the voices challenging the claims that these hunts are necessary tradition must come from the Faroese themselves. The individuals we support will in turn educate and share their love and appreciation for whales and dolphins who live in the waters around their home.

We are also exploring other political, economic, and diplomatic strategies to leverage the public’s outcry against this most recent and unprecedented hunt.

Challenging entrenched cultural attitudes and beliefs often involves conflict, and resistance to outside criticism is a natural and predictable response. But societies and their customs can adapt and change, and we will continue to seek an end to these cruel hunts.

What has happened on the Faroe Islands since the recent large dolphin hunt? There is evidence of public unrest since this hunt occurred. An informal poll conducted by a Faroese newspaper shows that 63% of the public now oppose the dolphin hunt. The board of the Faroese Aquaculture Association publicly condemned this hunt, emphasizing that none of their fishing boats and equipment were utilized in the drive hunt. Bakkafrost, one the largest farmed salmon operations in the Faroe Islands, and the world, claims that they are already losing money because of the dolphin slaughter, and the government published a statement signaling that it may be open to discussing and amending dolphin hunting laws. An important tipping point within Faroese communities may be on the horizon.

What is OPS’ position on these hunts?  As with the dolphin drive hunts in Japan, we believe that these hunts represent an archaic and outdated practice and are a form of ecocide. The brutal methods deployed to herd sentient and self-aware whales and dolphins from out at sea and used to inefficiently kill hundreds of pilot whales and other dolphin species is unacceptable and unnecessary.  Dolphins are highly social creatures. Pilot whales live in family groups throughout their lifetimes. Mothers have been documented carrying dead calves for days, strong evidence of their strong social and familial bonds and their capacity to mourn.

We believe this practice must end. At OPS, we are aligned with the words of humanitarian and philosopher Dr. Albert Schweitzer: “The thinking man must oppose all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition and surrounded by a halo. When we have a choice, we must avoid bringing torment and injury into the life of another…”

What can I do to help stop these hunts?

Watch the trailer for Bridging Troubled Waters, and stay tuned for the release of this important film. Supported by OPS, the film documents the potential for art and children to shape a more hopeful future.

While we work to change hearts and minds in the Faroes, we must always let the Faroese Government know that we condemn these brutal hunts. Send a politely worded letter to the Faroese Government and copy it to the Danish Foreign Ministry (addresses below) to express your opposition to the hunts.

Please take the time to mail a letter, or send a fax, as it often has more impact than an email. Support the Faroese voices that are speaking out against the hunts.

Office of the Faroese Government

Prime Minister Bárður á Steig Nielsen

Løgmansskrivstovan
Tinganes
Posting Office 64
110 Tórshavn

Tel. +298 306000
Fax +298 306015

[email protected]

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark

Minister Jeppe Kofod

Asiatisk Plads 2
DK-1448 Copenhagen K

Tel. +45 20 26 41 08

[email protected]

Support OPS and our campaigns to end dolphin hunts.

Stay tuned for more ways that you can help!

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