Programme Lead at OceanCare on ending directed takes of marine mammals
The tricky case of archaic whale hunts in the remote archipelago of the Faroe Islands
In September of 2021, the gruesome killing of over 1,400 Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the remote Faroe Islands made media headlines of shock and outrage around the world. It also upset and spurred debate among the Faroese themselves, as these dolphins are not typically targeted for hunting, unlike the larger pilot whales.
The Faroes are comprised of 18 small islands and are a semi-autonomous Danish protectorate, situated in the North Atlantic between Iceland and the Scottish Shetland Islands, with a population of about 50 thousand people. The Faroese have been hunting small whales and occasionally dolphins for hundreds of years, killing an average of around 700 pilot whales every year. This complicated issue is extremely challenging and it is entwined in many issues for the Faroese people. These include their sense of cultural identity and social solidarity against perceived foreign cultural imperialism and so on.
What have we achieved in 30 years of campaigning and where do the barriers lie?
OceanCare’s campaign on the Faroese whaling issue spans some thirty years. It was back in 1992, that OceanCare’s founder, Sigrid Lüber, acting as an NGO observer, presented a petition with 42,000 signatures against the killing of small cetaceans to the Chair at the International Whaling Commission conference.
While OceanCare would go on to present other letters and petitions to governments and key stakeholders around the issue of Faroese whale and dolphin killings, we have also advanced a multi-tiered approach to this difficult issue. This has included outreach to fish retailers and supermarkets, support for social education through arts and film, community outreach in whaling nations and advocacy work on environmental and human health issues.
Key among these efforts have been a series of scientific reports and publications, largely focused on the health threats associated with human consumption of whale and dolphin meat and blubber, which can be highly contaminated with a number of toxic pollutants. Working in partnership with Pro Wildlife, OceanCare developed www.toxic-menu.org, an online resource, providing information on this issue. The database is aimed at informing politicians, authorities and doctors, as well as the public.
Supporting different avenues to foster dialogue and drive change:
An important aspect of environmental work is finding ways to reach audiences who might not normally have an interest in such issues. Since 1997 OceanCare began work to reach a wider demographic through its support of documentary films and other engaging public presentations, often incorporating science, photography and education.
OceanCare gave critical support to the film Grindahvalur, a documentary film by Drew Sutton and environmentalist Andy Ottaway, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, which premiered in the Faroe Islands and was also broadcast on Faroese national television. While fostering an appreciation for pilot whales in their natural habitat, this film invited debate about the controversial hunting of these marine mammals. This film screened in conjunction with panel discussions in many locations around the islands, was viewed over 5,000 times online and was well received by the Faroese population and local media.
In January and May of 2019, OceanCare sponsored two exclusive, special test screenings of documentary film «Whale Like Me» in Vienna and Berlin respectively. Shot over the course of ten years, it follows filmmaker Malcolm Wright’s search to discover why whales are still being hunted today, and if there could be any way of resolving this difficult, complex issue. Visiting various whaling communities, Malcolm was able to develop friendships and share adventures with whalers from different cultures. The result is a unique film that portrays people with opposing perspectives, engaging in new dialogue and experiential exchanges, rather than the perpetuation of conflict. As such, it carries a hopeful message for positive change that reaches far beyond the whaling issue. After both film presentations, viewers participated in panel discussion and critical questions about how an over-aggressive response to the whaling issue may have contributed to making the situation worse rather than better; thus suggesting a lighter and more careful touch may be required.
Whaling Community Outreach: Promoting positive change from within
In 2008 OceanCare, together with the Danish Marine Mammal Society initiated a new kind of outreach, right in the Faroe Islands. This investigation involved talking with different Faroese people to better understand the situation regarding pilot whaling and the consumption of whale meat. This helped to inform and develop strategies to raise awareness around the risks of whale meat consumption. Later that same year, the Faroese health authority appealed to the public to refrain from consuming pilot whale meat.
From 2012 onwards, OceanCare invested in a real shift of approach regarding Faroese whaling. It was becoming apparent that the Faroese were quite resistant to outside criticism of their hunts. However, it was also discovered that there were some Faroese who cared about whales and had started to question or criticize the killing. Thus, OceanCare began an ongoing approach of maintaining and expanding contacts and supporting the local Faroese movement against the pilot whale hunts, within their country.
This key concept of supporting and promoting positive change from within, rather than exerting pressure from outside, remained a driver of OceanCare’s approach, going forward on the Faroese whaling issue. In 2014, as the Faroese whale protection movement continued to grow and network, OceanCare helped support the creation of a Faroese language website, http://grindabod.fo to showcase the living wonder of pilot whales in their natural environment and why whales are worth protecting.
Walking a fine line:
The numbers of whales and dolphins killed year by year in the Faroe Islands fluctuates – it could be 50 whales, or 500 or 1,500, revealing how complex the situation on the ground is. Meanwhile it remained clear that the Faroese react negatively to confrontational actions by activists from abroad, which has caused many islanders to double down on their commitment to continue whaling no matter what.
Understanding how harsh foreign criticism of the Faroese hunts tends to boost whaling, rather than slow it down, OceanCare continued to refrain from external pressure and to concentrate on supporting the local whaling opponents to participate in symposia, providing important platforms for networking, as well as the Grindabod.fo website to encourage the Faroese population to rethink and change from within.
Continuing on from 2016 throughout 2018, OceanCare also supported a local campaign to raise awareness among school children about the natural treasures of the Faroese archipelago on land and in water, which include dolphins and whales. OceanCare also continues to pursue a strategy of supporting local conservationists, teaching islanders about fascinating pilot whales in the local language. This kind of community outreach included supporting a 2-day course for six teachers and two educational campaigns about contaminants in pilot whale meat and the risks of its consumption.
In 2017 and 2018, as part of this community outreach in the Faroe Islands, OceanCare also helped make possible special test screenings of documentary film, «Whale Like Me». A portion of this film focuses on a whaling family from the Faroe Islands, portraying how, in 2012, a whaler and his son accompanied filmmaker Malcolm Wright to the Canary Islands, to attempt to experience close encounters with wild, free living pilot whales. The result is a fascinating journey and constitutes one of the core passages in the film. These screenings also featured panel discussions with Faroese both for and against whaling, as well as a renowned whale scientist. Despite the incendiary subject matter, these presentations were very well received by the Faroese, and allowed for useful discussion on the issue.
In 2019, OceanCare’s sponsorship made possible a continuation of this unique «Whale Like Me» saga. The filmmakers were able to, for the first time ever, invite three generations of Faroese (grandparents, parents and children) to experience a completely different reality in the Canary Islands, where whales are protected, celebrated and enjoyed as part of a thriving local whale watching industry. Experiencing this very different environment where whales are viewed so differently, enabled this Faroese family to experience the many benefits of regulated and careful marine ecotourism, which is so popular in the area, and to share this experience in whaling communities back home in the Faroe Islands.
Addressing human health issues:
Among OceanCare’s key avenues of approach in addressing the Faroese whaling issue, are emphasising the human health issues associated with consuming whale meat on an international and EU policy level. Since 1998, OceanCare has been investigating and publishing reports regarding the unhealthy concentrations of pollutants in whale meat. It was found that the loads of contaminants were so high, that pilot whale meat should be labeled as hazardous waste. In that same year, the Faroe Islands Health Department issued an advisement to its citizens to restrict the consumption of pilot whale meat, while women that were pregnant or planning to be, were advised to avoid eating whale meat altogether.
Since its inception thirty years ago, OceanCare has remained active at the international policy level of whaling. Working within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), we have supported numerous resolutions regarding human health in connection with the killing/consumption of cetaceans and, subsequently, in 2001, the IWC began to cooperate with the World Health Organization (WHO).
In response to the obvious dangers, in 2011 the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) took up the issue of health risks at the conference on contaminants in fish products and held a workshop on the benefits and risks of whale meat consumption, together with the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO). That same year, a delegation of representatives from several NGOs, including OceanCare, held talks with government representatives on the Faroe Islands, appealing to the authorities to question both the whale hunts, the killing methods, as well as the enormous pollutant loads in the whale meat.
The next year, in 2012, the IWC adopted a resolution, following a long-standing demand by OceanCare and its partners, which obliged whaling countries to educate their citizens about the health risks associated with the consumption of whale and dolphin meat, as well as stressed the importance of continued scientific research on how human activities affect the marine environment, and impact both cetacean and human health.
Developments since 2021: A line is overstepped – raising the voice to end the dolphin drive hunts
In the wake of the September 2021 mass-killing of over 1,400 white-sided dolphins in the Faroe Islands, OceanCare adjusted their strategy, becoming more vocal in putting more pressure on EU member states to condemn the hunts and call for an end to both dolphin and pilot whale hunting. Indeed, the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries soon addressed the Faroese Prime Minister, calling for an end to these hunts, while the EU Commission bilaterally called for an end to hunts of whales and dolphins, calling them an «unnecessary and controversial practice».
In the past, EU states had remained largely silent, shying away from criticizing the cruel and obsolete tradition of killing small cetaceans in the Faroe Islands. This strong and – most importantly – public statement by the EU marks a turning point in the previous reluctance to condemn the Faroese whale/dolphin hunts.
In December 2021, just before Christmas, the EU members in the IWC (except Denmark) took action, too. Their official letter to all members of the International Whaling Commission leaves nothing to be desired in terms of clarity and states: «We condemn the cruel and unnecessary killing of more than 1,400 white-sided dolphins …. We call on the Faroese government to immediately end the antiquated practice of hunting whales and dolphins … We advocate that the reassessment of the hunt be extended to pilot whales … We welcome the Faroe Islands government’s announcement to review the legal basis for the hunting of white-sided dolphins and are confident that it will soon be more strictly regulated or banned altogether.» (https://archive.iwc.int/pages/view.php?ref=19399&k=)
To better understand the threats to the Atlantic white-sided dolphin, OceanCare commissioned independent scientist Susannah Calderan from the Scottish Association for Marine Science to write a report considering what is known of the biology of this species in the NE Atlantic. She showed how significant the knowledge gaps are with regard to the numbers and population structures of this dolphin species. Several separate populations are thought to exist in the North Atlantic and estimates of the size of populations are extremely imprecise. In the available research projects inquiring into Atlantic white-sided dolphin numbers, fewer than 20 sightings are recorded. Thus, te killing of at least 1,428 white-sided dolphins in a single hunt is also extremely alarming from a population and species-conservation perspective.
When Tradition Becomes the Blanket Excuse for Outdated Practices
Whilst we appreciate that human cultures and their traditions should be protected, this should not be at the cost of severe animal suffering. In addition, whale and dolphin hunting in the Faroe Islands is now conducted using modern motor vessels and modern forms of communication to control the driving of the animals. This is far from the traditional approach to whale hunting. Besides, the animals that roam the wider NE Atlantic region do not belong to any nation or community and the deliberate killing undermines the conservation efforts ongoing elsewhere in European waters to protect these same marine mammal species.
Petition to end the dolphin and whale hunts in the Faroe Islands
Going forward through 2022 and beyond, OceanCare maintains its strong commitment to marine habitat and wildlife protection. As of May in 2022, over 43,000 people have signed OceanCare’s petition in support of ending whale and dolphin hunting in the Faroe Islands.
We will not rest until the pilot whales and all the other marine mammals are safe from the drive hunts in the Faroe Islands. Every voice counts as together, we can create a wind of change. Now is the time to embark on a new path and we hope that the Faroese people can find other ways to celebrate their special relationship with the sea.