WHALING IN THE FAROE ISLANDS
• The Faroe Islands are situated roughly half way between Scotland and Iceland and consist of 18 mountainous islands, 17 of which are inhabited by the population of around 48,600. As a self-governing nation under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Government of the Faroes administers independently of Denmark all areas of self-government under Faroese legislation, including the conservation and management of fish and whale stocks within the 200-mile fisheries zone. The Faroe Islands have chosen not to be a part of the EU, but maintain bilateral trade agreements and bilateral fisheries agreements with the EU and other countries.
• The Faroese economy is based largely on modern fishing and aquaculture industries, which produce high quality fish products for export. 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, limited catches of sea birds, and opportunistic catches of pilot whales. Dairy cattle satisfy all domestic milk needs, and potatoes and rhubarb are grown by many households for private use.
• Local agriculture, whaling and fowling have enabled the Faroe Islands as an island nation to maintain a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency in food production. In the Faroes it is considered both economic and environmental good sense to make the most of locally available natural resources, also keeping alive the knowledge required to use what nature can provide in a harsh oceanic environment.
• International principles for conservation and sustainable use of living marine resources apply to all components of the marine ecosystem, including whales. As a nation highly dependent on the resources of the sea, commitment to upholding these principles is a priority for the Faroe Islands.
The 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 are taken in the Faroe Islands for their meat and blubber in whale drives which are organised on the community level and regulated by national legislation and regulations. This unique and traditional form of food production in the Faroe Islands has over the years successfully adapted to modern standards of resource management and animal welfare.
• Both the meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been - and continue to be - a valued part of the national diet. Catches are shared largely without the exchange of money among the participants in a whale drive and residents of the local district where they are landed.
• Whale meat and blubber is stored, prepared and eaten in a variety of ways. When fresh, the meat is boiled or served as steaks, with blubber and potatoes. The meat and blubber can be frozen, or preserved using traditional Faroese methods such as dry-salting or storing in brine. Strips of whale meat are also hung to wind-dry for several weeks. Thin slivers of blubber are also a popular accompaniment to dried fish. 2
Sustainability of the catch
• Annual catch records for pilot whales and other small cetaceans in the Faroe Islands date back to 1584. These provide over 400 years of nearly continuous documentation, and represent one of the most comprehensive historical records of wildlife utilisation anywhere in the world. The annual long-term average catch of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands is around 800 whales, with large fluctuations in total catches and the number of individual whale drives from year to year. In the more than 20-year period since 1991, annual catches have ranged from zero (in 2008) to 1,572 (in 1992).
• 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.
• The most recent scientific estimate of abundance for the pilot whale stock is 128,000 in the Iceland-Faroese survey area. This estimate is based on data from the latest Trans-Atlantic Sightings Survey (T-NASS) in 2007, coordinated by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO).
• With a long-term annual average catch of fewer than 1000 animals, representing less that 1% of the total estimated pilot whale stock, it is widely recognised that pilot whale catches in the Faroe Islands are sustainable.
Methods used to kill whales
• Whale drives are only initiated when whales are sighted by chance close to land. A crucial factor in ensuring an effective whale drive is the organisation of participants, both in boats and on shore. Prevailing weather and tidal conditions will also have a major bearing on whether and where a group of whales can be driven and beached. The spontaneous nature of a whale drive requires swift mobilisation of manpower to drive and kill a group of large wild animals quickly.
• Faroese animal welfare legislation, which also applies to whaling, stipulates that animals are killed as quickly and with as little suffering as possible. Whales are killed on the shore and in the shallows of bays especially authorised for the purpose. The blow-hole hook is used to secure beached whales for killing and causes no injury prior to slaughter.
• The recently developed spinal lance has now been officially introduced as regulation equipment for the killing of pilot whales. From 1 May 2015 it must be the primary instrument used. As with the traditional whaling knife, the lance is used to sever the spinal cord, which also severs the major blood supply to the brain, ensuring both loss of consciousness and death within seconds. The spinal lance has been shown to reduce killing time to 1-2 seconds, while also improving accuracy and safety.
• 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 people who are active and experienced participants in the whale drive. To maintain a high level of skill and expertise in the future, from 1 May 2015 only those having attended a certified course of instruction in the whaling regulations and killing methods will be permitted to kill whales. 3
Environmental & health concerns
• Pilot whales, like other small toothed whales and seals, are known to accumulate high levels of heavy metals such as mercury (in the meat and organs) and organochlorines (in the blubber). These contaminants are deposited in the marine environment through airborne pollution and waste from industrial processes, bio-accumulating up through the food chain where they are often found in high levels in top marine predators.
• This is a matter of considerable concern to Faroe Islanders, who are so dependent on the sea and its resources for their livelihood. Over the past two decades, extensive international research has focussed on the health effects of contaminants from whale meat and blubber in the diet of Faroese people. In 1998, public health, food and environmental authorities in the Faroe Islands issued comprehensive, precautionary recommendations for the safe consumption of pilot whale meat and blubber.
• In response to more recent research, and based on the latest internationally applied standards for precautionary limits, a recent review of these recommendations has resulted in revised recommendations issued by the Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority in June 2011. The new recommendations advise that consumption should be limited to one meal of whale meat and blubber per month. Women of child-bearing age are advised, as in 1998, not to consume blubber at all until they have had their children. Women are also advised to refrain from eating whale meat three months prior to, and during, pregnancy and while breast feeding.
• These limits are intended to safeguard against the risks associated with heavy metals and PCBs. At the same time, the nutritional benefits of whale meat and blubber, which is rich in poly-unsaturated fats and essential vitamins and minerals, should also be acknowledged.
• It is the view of the Faroese Government that the major focus of international efforts by governments, international bodies and environmental organisations must be to protect and promote the rights of coastal nations to the sustainable use of their marine resources. This is best achieved by adopting effective measures to reduce and eliminate, at its source, global industrial pollution, which can end up in the valuable food provided by the sea.
• 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.
For further information
• Whales and whaling in the Faroe Islands: www.whaling.fo
• NAMMCO: North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission: www.nammco.