Waves of Controversy

The Faroe Islands' Whale Hunt and its Ripple Effect on Ocean Health Index Scores

by Carlo Broderick

Fri, Sep 01, 2023

The practice of whale hunting has been a long-standing tradition in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous territory within the Kingdom of Denmark (Olsen 2011). However, this cultural practice has recently come under increased domestic and international scrutiny. In September 2021, an unusually large whale hunt drew widespread attention and criticism. This single hunt resulted in the slaughter of 1,428 white-sided dolphins, a significant outlier in the Island’s recent whale hunting statistics (BBC 2021). This event is now appearing as a notable spike in “cetacean captures” for the Faroe Islands within the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data set used by the Ocean Health Index (OHI). Cetaceans, a taxonomic group that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises, have been hunted for centuries but the practice is now widely considered unsustainable, as it poses threats to the long-term health and survival of these species, and to the overall balance of marine ecosystems (Parsons 2022).

Illustration of the Atlantic white-sided dolphin by Matthew Messina

The magnitude of the 2021 event can also be seen in the interactive graph below from the country’s own national statistical authority, Statistics Faroe Islands. To see the impact of the 2021 whale hunting event on the Faroe Island’s whale hunting statistics, select the “Other Dolphins” item in the legend on the right.

The OHI data layer, which uses the FAO data, identified a 2.79 increase in the Faroe Islands’ pressure score. Higher pressure scores from cetacean hunting negatively impact a region’s biodiversity and sense of place goal scores. More information about data layers and OHI scores can be found in the recent Exploring OHI Data Layers blog post. The Ocean Health Index acknowledges the cultural and social significance of whale hunting in the Faroe Islands but also encourages sustainable practices that maintain a healthy and prosperous relationship with our oceans. With this in mind, it is important to consider the broader implications of whale hunting on the Faroe Islands.

Pollution and its impact on marine ecosystems have now become a major concern, affecting not only marine life but also human health on the Island. Biomagnification, a process where toxic substances accumulate in increasing concentrations as one moves up the food chain, has led to the contamination of whale meat and blubber. Studies have shown a link between the consumption of pilot whale meat and health issues such as Parkinson’s, hypertension, and arteriosclerosis of the carotid arteries in Faroese adults, with children and pregnant individuals being particularly vulnerable (Weihe 2012). As the Faroese people continue to grapple with controversy of whale hunting, their centuries-old tradition of hunting and consuming whales has transformed from a cultural staple to a source of health concerns, highlighting the complex interplay between cultural preservation, environmental degradation, and the need for sustainable and healthy practices that protect both marine ecosystems and human health (WHO 2008).

The debate over the Faroese whale hunt is far from over, as demonstrated by a recent event in 2023 (Sachs 2023). A British cruise ship, the Ambassador Cruise Line, arrived in the port of Torshavn, where passengers witnessed the slaughter of nearly 80 pilot whales in a traditional Grindadráp hunt. The incident, which involved corralling the whales using motorboats and a helicopter, dragging them to the beach with hooks, and killing them with knives, has reignited the international debate over the Faroese whale hunt.

The ongoing controversies surrounding the whale hunt in the Faroe Islands serve as a reminder of the complex and interconnected relationship we all have with the oceans around us. The OHI team will continue to monitor the situation in the Faroe Islands and update the OHI scores for the island based on new data. As a comprehensive measure of ocean health, the OHI can serve as a useful tool for policymakers, conservationists, and citizens, guiding efforts towards sustainable practices that balance cultural traditions, environmental conservation, and the health and well-being of marine ecosystems and the communities that depend on them.

Species List for the OHI Targeted Harvest of Cetaceans and Marine Turtles Analysis

Below is a table listing the group and species names used to assess the OHI Targeted Harvest data layer.

group species
cetacean Atlantic spotted dolphin
cetacean Atlantic white-sided dolphin
cetacean Andrews' beaked whale
cetacean Australian snubfin dolphin
cetacean Baird's beaked whale
cetacean Baleen whales nei
cetacean Beaked whales nei
cetacean Blainville's beaked whale
cetacean Blue whale
cetacean Bottlenose dolphin
cetacean Bowhead whale
cetacean Bryde's whale
cetacean Burmeister's porpoise
cetacean Clymene dolphin
cetacean Commerson's dolphin
cetacean Common dolphin
cetacean Cuvier's beaked whale
cetacean Dall's porpoise
cetacean Dolphins nei
cetacean Dusky dolphin
cetacean Dwarf sperm whale
cetacean False killer whale
cetacean Finless porpoise
cetacean Fin whale
cetacean Franciscana
cetacean Gervais' beaked whale
cetacean Gray whale
cetacean Guyana dolphin
cetacean Harbour porpoise
cetacean Hector's dolphin
cetacean Humpback whale
cetacean Indo-Pac. hump-backed dolphin
cetacean Indo-Pacif. bottlenose dolphin
cetacean Irrawaddy dolphin
cetacean Killer whale
cetacean Long-beaked common dolphin
cetacean Long-finned pilot whale
cetacean Melon-headed whale
cetacean Minke whale
cetacean Narwhal
cetacean Northern bottlenose whale
cetacean Northern right whale
cetacean Northern right whale dolphin
cetacean Pacific white-sided dolphin
cetacean Pantropical spotted dolphin
cetacean Peale's dolphin
cetacean Pilot whales nei
cetacean Pygmy sperm whale
cetacean Risso's dolphin
cetacean Rough-toothed dolphin
cetacean Sei whale
cetacean Short-finned pilot whale
cetacean Southern right whale
cetacean Sowerby's beaked whale
cetacean Spectacled porpoise
cetacean Sperm whale
cetacean Spinner dolphin
cetacean Spotted dolphins nei
cetacean Stejneger's beaked whale
cetacean Strap-toothed whale
cetacean Striped dolphin
cetacean Toothed whales nei
cetacean Vaquita
cetacean White-beaked dolphin
cetacean White whale
turtle Green turtle
turtle Hawksbill turtle
turtle Loggerhead turtle
turtle Marine turtles nei
turtle Eastern Pacific green turtle
cetacean Indian Ocean humpback dolphin
cetacean Pygmy right whale


Thank you to Statistics Faroe Islands for having freely available and transparent data online. We greatly appreciate free and open data sources and transparency.

Thank you to Matthew Messina for his beautiful illustration of a white sided dolphin.


  1. BBC. (2021). Faroe Islands: Anger over Killing of 1,400 Dolphins in One Day. BBC News. Retrieved August 21, 2023.

  2. Olsen, J. (2011). Killing Methods and Equipment in the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt.

  3. Parsons, E. C. M., & Rose, N. A. (2022). The History of Cetacean Hunting and Changing Attitudes to Whales and Dolphins. In G. Notarbartolo di Sciara & B. Würsig (Eds.), Marine Mammals: the Evolving Human Factor; Ethology and Behavioral Ecology of Marine Mammals. Springer International Publishing.

  4. Sachs, A. (2023). 78 Whales Slaughtered in Front of Cruise Passengers in Faroe Islands. Washington Post. Retrieved August 22, 2023.

  5. Weihe, P., & Debes Joensen, H. (2012). Dietary Recommendations Regarding Pilot Whale Meat and Blubber in the Faroe Islands. International Journal of Circumpolar Health, 71(S2), 18594.

  6. World Health Organization (WHO). (2008). Guidance for identifying populations at risk from mercury exposure. Retrieved August 29, 2013.