Whaling in the Faroe Islands

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Killed pilot whales on the beach in the village Hvalba on the southernmost Faroese island Suðuroy, 11 August 2002.

Whaling in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic has been practiced since about the time of the first Norse settlements on the islands. It is regulated by Faroese authorities but not by the International Whaling Commission as there are disagreements about the Commission's legal competency for small cetaceans.[1][2] Around 950 Long-finned Pilot Whales (Globicephala melaena) are killed annually, mainly during the summer. The hunts, called grindadráp in Faroese, are non-commercial and are organized on a community level; anyone can participate. The hunters first surround the pilot whales with a wide semicircle of boats. The boats then drive the pilot whales slowly into a bay or to the bottom of a fjord.

Many Faroese consider the hunt an important part of their culture and history. Animal-rights groups criticize the hunt as being cruel and unnecessary. As of the end of November 2008 the chief medical officers of the Faroe Islands have recommended that pilot whales no longer be considered fit for human consumption because of the level of mercury in the whales.[3]

Origins[edit]

Whale hunting has been a common phenomenon for a long time. It is known[citation needed] to have existed on Iceland, in the Hebrides, and in Shetland and Orkney.

Archaeological evidence from the early Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands c. 1200 years ago, in the form of pilot whale bones found in household remains in Gøta, indicates that the pilot whale has long had a central place in the everyday life of Faroe Islanders. The meat and blubber of the pilot whale have been an important part of the islanders’ staple diet. The islanders have particularly valued blubber: both as food and for processing into oil, which they used for lighting fuel and other purposes.[which?] They also used parts of the skin of pilot whales for ropes and lines, while utilising the stomachs as floats.

Laws have regulated rights in the Faeroes since medieval times. References appear in early Norwegian legal documents, while the oldest existing legal document with specific reference to the Faroes, the so-called Sheep Letter from 1298, includes rules for rights to, and shares of, both stranded whales as well as whales driven ashore.[4]

Records of drive hunts in the Faroe Islands date back to 1584.[5]

Elements of the hunt[edit]

The sighting[edit]

The pilot whale hunt has a well-developed system of communication. Reverend Lucas Debes made reference to the system, which means that it had already developed by the seventeenth century. Historically the system takes place as such: When a school of pilot whales has been sighted, messengers are sent to spread the news among the inhabitants of the island involved (the Faroe Islands have 17 inhabited islands). At the same time, a bonfire is lit at a specific location, to inform those on the neighbouring island, where the same pattern then is followed.

It is believed that the system is one of the oldest elements concerning the pilot whale hunt. This is because a rather large number of boats and people are necessary to drive and kill a school of pilot whales. The traditional method is not used, instead the news of a sighting is relayed by phone and other modern methods of communication.

Locations[edit]

The small village of Hvalvík (in English: “Whale Bay”) on the island Streymoy is a well-known place for beaching pilot whales.

The location must be well-suited to the purpose of beaching whales. It is against the law to kill pilot whales at locations with inappropriate conditions. The seabed must gradually slope from the shore out to deep water. Given such conditions, the chances are good that the whales can be driven fully ashore or close enough to the shore that they can be killed from land. When a school of pilot whales is sighted, boats gather behind them and slowly drive them towards the chosen authorized location, usually a bay or the end of a fjord. There are 22 towns, villages or bays (Viðvík is not populated) that have the right conditions, and therefore legal authorization, for beaching whales. These are Bøur, Fámjin, Fuglafjørður, Syðrugøta, Húsavík, Hvalba and Nes-Hvalba, Hvalvík, Hvannasund, Klaksvík, Leynar, Miðvágur, Norðagøta, Norðskáli, Sandur, Syðrugøta, Tórshavn (in Sandagerð), Tvøroyri, Vágur, Vestmanna, Viðvík (near Hvannasund, but on the east coast of Viðoy) and Øravík.[6][7] These towns and villages have featured most heavily in the statistics for whaling in the Faroes since 1854.

Regulations[edit]

At the beginning of the twentieth century, proposals to begin regulation of the whale hunt began to reach the Faroese legislature. On 4 June 1907, the Danish Governor (in Faroese: amtmaður), as well as the sheriff, sent the first draft for whaling regulations to the Office of the Exchequer in Copenhagen. In the following years, a number of drafts were debated, and finally in 1932 the first Faroese whaling regulations were introduced. Since then, every detail of the pilot whale hunt has been carefully defined in the regulations. This means that the institution of the pilot whale hunt, which had previously largely been based on tradition, became an integrated part of society’s legal structure. In the regulations, one has institutionalized old customs and added new ordinances when old customs have proved insufficient or inappropriate.[8]

Districts[edit]

Since 1832, the Faroe Islands have been divided into several whaling districts, although there is reason to believe that these districts already existed in some form prior to this date. These whaling districts are the basis for the distribution of the meat and blubber of the pilot whales caught. The catch is distributed in such a way that all the residents of the whaling district are given the same amount of the catch, regardless of whether they took part in the hunt or not.

Supervision[edit]

Before the enactment of home-rule in 1948, the Danish governor had the highest responsibility of supervising a pilot whale hunt. Today, supervision is the responsibility of the Faroese government. The government is charged with ensuring that the Pilot whaling regulations are respected and otherwise answer for preparations. In practice, this means that it is the local legislative representative who holds the highest command in a pilot whale hunt. It is his responsibility to both supervise the hunt and to distribute the catch.

The hunt[edit]

Pilot whale hunt in Suðuroy in August 2012
In accordance with the regulations, men gather on the shore to kill the beached whales, here in the town Vágur on Suðuroy, 28 June 2004.

Whale hunting equipment is legally restricted to hooks, ropes, and assessing-poles for measurement. A boat that has been equipped in such a manner is a pilot whale boat. The pilot whale boat is neither a traditional small Faroese rowing boat, nor is it a vehicle used by the coastal navigation, and it does not include the modern Faroese factory fleet. A pilot whale boat simply describes the temporary condition of a small boat during a hunt, which is otherwise used for line fishery or leisure purposes.

When the whalers have met the requirements specified above, the pilot whales can be driven. Whale drives take place only when a school of whales is sighted close to land, and when sea and weather conditions make this possible. The whaling regulations specify how the school of whales is to be driven ashore. The drive itself works by surrounding the pilot whales with a wide semicircle of boats. On the whaling-foreman’s signal, stones attached to lines are thrown into the water behind the pilot whales, thus the boats drive the whales towards an authorised beach or fjord, where the whales then beach themselves. It is not permitted to take whales on the ocean-side of the rope. A pilot whale drive is always under supervision of local authorities.

The pilot whales that are not beached were often stabbed in the blubber with a sharp hook, called a gaff (in Faroese: sóknarongul), and then pulled ashore. But, after allegations of animal cruelty, the Faroese whalers started using blunt gaffs (in Faroese: blásturongul) to pull the whales ashore by their blowholes. As of 2012, the ordinary gaff is used only to pull killed whales ashore. The blunt gaff became generally accepted since its invention in 1993, and it is not only more effective, but it is also more humane by comparison to the other gaff. However, anti-whaling groups, such as Greenpeace and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), claim that the partial blocking and irritation of the airway hurts and panics the animal.

Furthermore, in 1985, the Faroe Islands outlawed the use of spears and harpoons in the hunt, as it considers these weapons to be unnecessarily cruel to animals.

Once ashore, the pilot whale is killed by cutting the dorsal area through to the spinal cord with a special whaling knife, a grindaknívur. Given the circumstances during a pilot whale hunt, the whaling knife is considered the safest and most effective equipment with which to kill the whales. The length of time it takes for a whale to die varies from a few seconds to a few minutes, with the average time being 30 seconds.[9]

Other species of cetacean that may be taken[edit]

According to Faroese legislation, it is also permitted to hunt certain species of small cetaceans other than pilot whales.[10] These include: bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus), and harbour porpoise (Phocaena phocaena).

The hunting of these dolphin species, with the exception of harbour porpoises, is carried out in the same way as the pilot whale hunt.

Harbour porpoises are killed with shotguns, and numbers taken must be reported to the relevant district sheriff. According to statistics, the number of harbour porpoises shot on an annual basis is very low—from 0 to 10 animals.

Commercial whaling for larger whale species (fin and minke whales) in the Faroes Islands has not been carried out since 1984. The last whaling station was the one Við Áir near Hvalvík, which closed down in 1984. The Faroese government (Mentamálaráðið) and the Sunda Municipality are restoring it together with Søvn Landsins, they will make it into a maritime museum.[11]

Impression[edit]

The sea having turned blood red.
Two dead northern bottlenose whales in the bay of Nes in Hvalba on Suðuroy.

During the cut of a pilot whale’s spine, its main arteries also get cut. Because of this, the surrounding sea tends to turn a bloody red. This vivid imagery is often used by anti-whaling groups in their campaigns against the hunt. These images of a blood-red sea can have a shocking effect on bystanders.

Since harpoons, spears, and firearms are prohibited, the whalers must be on the shoreline of the water and kill each individual whale.

Ólavur Sjúrðaberg, the chairman of the Faroese Pilot Whalers’ Association, describes the pilot whale hunt in such a way: “I’m sure that no one who kills his own animals for food is unmoved by what he does. You want it done as quickly and with as little suffering as possible for the animal.”[12]

The pilot whale as a source of food[edit]

The largest part of traditional Faroese food consists of meat. Because of the rugged, rocky Faroese terrain, grain and vegetables do not grow very well, as only about 2% of the 1,393 km2 is arable land and none is set aside for permanent crops.[13] During the winter months, the Faroe Islanders’ only option was to eat mostly salted or dried food (this includes meat, pilot whale meat, seabirds, and fish). This means that over the centuries, the pilot whale has been an important source of nutrition for the isolated population on the North Atlantic archipelago.

The pilot whale meat and blubber are stored, prepared, and eaten in Faroese households. This also means that whale meat is not available at supermarkets. Although the Faroe Islands’ main export is fish, this does not include pilot whale meat or blubber. An annual catch of 956 pilot whales[14] (1990–1999) is roughly equivalent to 500 tonnes of meat and blubber, some 30% of all meat produced locally in the Faroe Islands.

Food preparation[edit]

Tvøst og spik. Black meat of the pilot whale and blubber (middle), together with dried fish (left) and potatoes.

Whale meat and blubber are Faroese delicacies. Well into the 20th century, meat and blubber from the pilot whale was used to feed people for long periods of time. Everybody got a share, as is the custom to this day.[15] The meat and blubber can be stored and prepared in a variety of ways, such as Tvøst og spik. When fresh, the meat is boiled or served as steaks. A pilot whale steak is called in Faroese: grindabúffur. Whale meat with blubber and potatoes in their skins are put in to a saucepan with salt and then boiled for an hour. Slivers of the blubber are also a popular accompaniment to dried fish.

The traditional preservation is by salting or outdoor wind-drying. Today the meat and blubber are often kept in the freezer. The traditional way of storage is still practiced, particularly in the villages.

Tourists in the Faroe Islands who would like to try pilot whale meat and other Faroese food specialties can do so at different cultural events, which are mostly organized in the summer. Tourists who consider consuming pilot whale or cetacean meat on a visit to the Faroe Islands should note the warnings from the Faroese Chief Medical Officers about the high mercury content.[16]

Cultural importance[edit]

Pilot whale hunt is an integral part of Faroese social culture. As the attenders of a grindadráp usually are men, women do not actively take part in it, but are bystanders or onlookers. This is part of the traditional division of labor concerning grindadráp that is centuries old, and has not changed over time.

In Faroese literature and art, grindadráp is an important motif. The grindadráp paintings by Sámal Joensen-Mikines rank internationally as some of his most important. They are part of a permanent exhibition in the Faroese art museum in the capital Tórshavn. The Danish governor of the Faroe Islands, Christian Pløyen, wrote the famous Pilot Whaling song, a Faroese ballad written in Danish entitled “A New Song about the Pilot Whale Hunt on the Faroes”. It was written during his term of office (1830–1847) and was printed in Copenhagen in 1835.

The Danish chorus line is Raske drenge, grind at dræbe det er vor lyst. In English: Tough boys, to slay the grind that’s our desire.

These old verses are rarely sung by the Faroese today.[citation needed] To many in the outside world (including Denmark),[citation needed] they are seen as a backward cliché about the culture of the islands.[citation needed]

Catches[edit]

Whaling in 1854 in Vestmanna

Records of the drive exist in part since 1584, and continuously from 1709—the longest period of time for statistics existing for any wild animal harvest in the world.[17]

The catch is divided into shares known in Faroese as a skinn, which is an age-old measurement value that derives from agricultural practices. One skinn equals 38 kg of whale meat plus 34 kg of blubber: in total 72 kg.

Period Drives Whales Skinn
1709–1950 1,195 178,259 1,360,160 |
Period Drives Whales Skinn
1951–1960 122 18,772 99,102
1961–1970 130 15,784 79,588
1971–1980 85 11,311 69,026
1981–1990 176 18,806 108,714
1991–2000 101 9,212 66,284 |
Period Drives Whales Skinn
2001 11 918 7,447
2002 10 626 4,263
2003 5 503 3,968
2004 9 1,010 8,276
2005 6 302 2,194
2006 11 856 6,615
2007 10 633 5,522
2008 N/A N/A N/A
2009 3 310 N/A
2010 16 1107 N/A
2011 10 726 N/A

The Faroe Island Statistical office published the official numbers for the 2009 drive hunt. The statistics show that a total of 310 pilot whales, 174 whitebeaked dolphins, two bottlenose whales and one bottlenose dolphin were killed in three separate grinds.[18]

  • Long-term annual average catch 1709–1999: 850
  • Annual average catch 1900–1999: 1,225
  • Annual average catch 1980–1999: 1,511
  • Annual average catch 1990–1999: 956

Population[edit]

Atlantic White-sided Dolphins on a concrete-floored dock in Hvalba, 26 August 2006

Surveys of the size of the Northeast Atlantic pilot whale population have been conducted by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission. These surveys converged on a figure of 778,000 pilot whales.[19] The pilot whale is not registered as an endangered species.

In its Red List of Threatened Species, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists both the Long-finned and Short-finned Pilot Whales with “Data Deficient” status, according to its 2008 assessment. In a previous assessment in 1996, the organization listed the species in the “Lower Risk/least concern” category. The IUCN also says that with the NAMMCO-estimated population size of 778,000 in the eastern North Atlantic, with approximately 100,000 around the Faroes, Faroese catches of 850 per year are probably sustainable.[20]

According to the American Cetacean Society, pilot whales are not considered endangered. The society cites “There are likely to be almost a million long-finned pilot whales and at least 200,000 short-finned pilot whales worldwide”.[21]

The population figure of 778,000 is accepted by the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee. Those in favour of whaling, such as the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission in their 1997 and 1999 reports on the hunt, claim that this is a conservative estimate,[19] whilst others opposed to the hunt, such as the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, cite data that the figure is overestimated.[citation needed] This means that the average kill from 1990–1999 of 956 animals each year represents about 0.1% of the population, which is considered sustainable by the IUCN and ACS.

Controversy[edit]

Faroese laws and the laws of the international communities allow for the Faroese Pilot Whale drive, while several international special interest groups object to this practice. Proponents of Faroese Pilot Whaling defend it with several arguments. The drive is described as essential to the Faroese culture and provides high quality food to substitute for the islands’ inability to sustain land based agriculture and that the number of whales taken are not harmful to the general Pilot Whale population. The Pilot Whale harvest does not exist as a commercial harvest and is proven as only a communal food distribution among local households; and the harvest of North Atlantic dolphin populations, at the rate of 0.1% per year, is sustainable for the species. In addition, proponents point to the Faroese law which prohibits causing an animal unnecessary harm.

Opponents of the whaling often cite the methods, which involve knives, hooks, and the chasing of whales by powerboats, as being inherently cruel to social animals capable of communication within their species. Opponents further note that most whale drives do not take “a few minutes” as often cited by Faroese government officials. Rather, the kills can sometimes take hours, with the herding process itself lasting more than an hour and resulting in injured whales.

Photographs in the media of the pilot whale drive display a red sea soaked in blood with the bodies of dead pilot whales. These images cause outrage worldwide. Proponents of the whale drive will defend these images saying that blood is a natural consequence of any animal slaughter and that those who have been outraged have been alienated from the process and basic consequences of animal food production.

Proponents of the whale drive further argue that the pilot whale lives its whole life naturally in its natural environment, the Atlantic Ocean, and then is harvested in few minutes, with an average time of death of 30 seconds, in contrast to the fate of conventional livestock. Causing an animal unnecessary or excessive pain and discomfort is also prohibited by the Faroese law.

Opponents argue that the whale drive is not only cruel, but in their of view of the imported food supply to the Faroes, completely unnecessary. The Faroese Ministry of Health warns against consumption of pilot whale meat, since it has been shown to contain toxic levels of mercury, PCBs, and environmental poisons.[22] The Faroese chief medical officers, Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen, announced in late 2008 that pilot whale meat and blubber contains too much mercury, PCBs, and DDT derivatives to be safe for human consumption[3]

During the recent history of the grindadráp, the tools of the catch have modernized. Cellular telephones and radio allow the islands to be alerted to a sighting within the course of minutes. The use of private motorboats gives the whalers more speed and maneuverability on the water. The dull blowhole hook, adopted in response to concerns over cruelty, had the additional effect of further increasing the effectiveness of Faroese attempting to beach the whales. In spite of how such improvements to the tools could make the grindadráp more effective, the number of pilot whales caught, both overall and per whale drive, is less than preceding centuries.

In 1989 the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society commissioned an animated public information film (narrated by Anthony Hopkins) to raise awareness on the Faroe Islands' whaling of long-finned pilot whales. The film is one minute long. It caused controversy when it was released. It depicted a Faroese Pilot Whale drive in graphic detail, but it is misleading in a number of ways, e.g. it shows whales being sliced and speared from boats in open water, which does not happen during a Pilot Whale drive in the Faroe Island. It was given a Universal Certificate by the BBFC[citation needed] since it was animated.

Joining the controversy was a book released in 2011, entitled Two Minutes, which was a photo-journalistic account of a Pilot Whale drive in a Faroese bay. The title referred to the time it took a whale to be killed after having been beached. The book met with considerable controversy.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Small Cetaceans". International Whaling Commission. 5 May 2004. Retrieved 21 July 2009. 
  2. ^ "Catch limits". International Whaling Commission. 1 September 2009. Retrieved 21 July 2009. 
  3. ^ a b MacKenzie, Debora (28 November 2008). "Faroe islanders told to stop eating 'toxic' whales". New Scientist. Retrieved 21 July 2009. 
  4. ^ Killing Methods and Equipment in the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt — English translation of a working paper by senior veterinarian, Jústines Olsen, originally presented in Danish at the NAMMCO Workshop on Hunting Methods for marine mammals, held in Nuuk, Greenland, in February 1999.[dead link]
  5. ^ Brakes, Philippa (2004). "A background to whaling". In Philippa Brakes, Andrew Butterworth, Mark Simmonds & Philip Lymbery. Troubled Waters: A Review of the Welfare Implications of Modern Whaling Activities. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-9547065-0-0. Retrieved 2013-08-16. 
  6. ^ Logir.fo, KUNNGERÐ NR. 107 FRÁ 21. NOVEMBER 1989 UM GÓÐKENNING AV HVALVÁGUM, SUM SEINAST BROYTT VIÐ KUNNGERÐ NR. 94 FRÁ 31. MAI 2001. (Faroese law, which names the authorized locations where whales may be killed.
  7. ^ Ngs.fo, page 13
  8. ^ Joensen, Jóan Pauli, Pilot Whaling in the Faroe Islands. Ethnologia Scandinavica 1976, Lund
  9. ^ "With the use of the traditional whaling hook, the average total time-to-death taken in the 199 whales recorded was 65.4 seconds, with a range of 8.0 to 290 seconds, and with 50% of whales killed in 55.3 seconds. With the use of the blowhole hook, recorded with a total of 52 whales, the average time-to-death was 29.2 seconds, with a range of 6 to 211 seconds, and with 50% of whales killed in 20.0 seconds.", quote from Killing methods and equipment in the Faroese pilot whale hunt[dead link]
  10. ^ Olsen, J. (1999) KILLING METHODS AND EQUIPMENT IN THE FAROESE PILOT WHALE HUNT, NAMMCO/99/WS/2
  11. ^ MMR.Sansir.net
  12. ^ "Marine Hunters: Modern and Traditional". High North Alliance. Retrieved 2006-12-05. [dead link]
  13. ^ "The World Factbook – Faroe Islands". Central Intelligence Agency. 4 March 2010. Retrieved 16 March 2010. 
  14. ^ "Pilot Whale catches in the Faroe Islands 1900–2000". Whaling.fo. Archived from the original on 14 June 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-04. 
  15. ^ "Faroe Islands tourist guide 2007—Food from the clean waters". Archived from the original on 7 December 2006. Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  16. ^ Whaling in the Faroe Islands#Controversy
  17. ^ "Whale catches in figures". Faroese Government. Archived from the original on 19 June 2008. Retrieved 2006-12-05. 
  18. ^ http://www.hagstova.fo/portal/page/portal/HAGSTOVAN/Hagstova_Foroya
  19. ^ a b "NAMMCO 1997 and 1999 report on the hunt". Retrieved 2012-01-13. 
  20. ^ Taylor, B.L., Baird, R., Barlow, J., Dawson, S.M., Ford, J., Mead, J.G., Notarbartolo di Sciara, G., Wade, P. & Pitman (2008). "Globicephala melas". IUCN. Retrieved 13 January 2012. 
  21. ^ American Cetacean Society Fact Sheet: Pilot Whale[dead link]
  22. ^ "CHEF—Children's Health and the Environment in the Faroes". Retrieved 2006-12-05. 

Further reading[edit]

New book: Joensen, Jóan Pauli 2009: Pilot Whaling in the Faroe Islands. History, Ethnography, Symbol, Faroe University Press, Tórshavn 2009

  • Sanderson, Kate (1990). Whales and Whaling in the Faroe Islands. Tórshavn: Dept. of Fisheries. OCLC 29755860. 
  • van Ginkel, Rob (2007). "Bloody Rituals: The Sicilian Mattanza and the Faroese Grindadrap". Coastal Cultures: An Anthropology of Fishing and Whaling Traditions. Apeldoorn: Het Spinhuis. p. 35. ISBN 978-90-5589-294-5. 

External links[edit]