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).
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.
Below is a table listing the group and species names used to assess the OHI Targeted Harvest data layer.
|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||Cuvier's beaked whale|
|cetacean||Dwarf sperm whale|
|cetacean||False killer whale|
|cetacean||Gervais' beaked whale|
|cetacean||Indo-Pac. hump-backed dolphin|
|cetacean||Indo-Pacif. bottlenose dolphin|
|cetacean||Long-beaked common dolphin|
|cetacean||Long-finned pilot whale|
|cetacean||Northern bottlenose whale|
|cetacean||Northern right whale|
|cetacean||Northern right whale dolphin|
|cetacean||Pacific white-sided dolphin|
|cetacean||Pantropical spotted dolphin|
|cetacean||Pilot whales nei|
|cetacean||Pygmy sperm whale|
|cetacean||Short-finned pilot whale|
|cetacean||Southern right whale|
|cetacean||Sowerby's beaked whale|
|cetacean||Spotted dolphins nei|
|cetacean||Stejneger's beaked whale|
|cetacean||Toothed whales nei|
|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.
BBC. (2021). Faroe Islands: Anger over Killing of 1,400 Dolphins in One Day. BBC News. Retrieved August 21, 2023.
Olsen, J. (2011). Killing Methods and Equipment in the Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt.
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.
Sachs, A. (2023). 78 Whales Slaughtered in Front of Cruise Passengers in Faroe Islands. Washington Post. Retrieved August 22, 2023.
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.
World Health Organization (WHO). (2008). Guidance for identifying populations at risk from mercury exposure. Retrieved August 29, 2013.