New rules but same old cruelty in Faroe Islands whaling

.No sooner was it announced that the Government of the Faroe Islands will implement new legislation on May 1, 2015 requiring the certification of anyone wishing to participate in the killing of pilot whales, than we learnt of the horrific slaughter of 267 pilot whales in Fuglafjørður on July 30.

This mass butchery followed an earlier kill of 120 whales in Viðvik on July 22.

Photographs published in the Faroese media show a chaotic scene of men, boats and whales in Fuglafjørður and we have to question why the decision was made to take so many whales. It is understood that the hunt foreman made a decision to drive half the whales towards the beach with the aim of stranding as many as possible so that people on the beach could quickly kill them.

He ignored the fact that at the time only four men were ready on the beach. This meant that those whales which actually stranded had to wait their turn to be killed, watching as family members were brutally dispatched. The rest remained in the shallows and deeper water as the bay turned red with the blood of their relatives.

But even this horror was not the end of the story. The pictures show men attempting to secure whales from their boats by sticking the round-ended hook into their blowholes; some were wading or swimming in the blood red water with the aim of doing the same. Meanwhile, others were engaged in a tug of war on the beach as they dragged individual whales through the water and onto the shore for slaughter – the hook embedded in the blowhole and attached to a long rope. Long finned pilot whales weigh up to about 1.3 tonnes.

Reports indicate that it took about one-and-a-half hours to kill the whales and we can only guess how much each individual whale suffered, not only while it was being dragged ashore and slaughtered but also while it was in the water. Pilot whales live their lives in close family groups and each whale would have been desperately communicating with others.

The Faroese Chief Scientist and Chief Medical Offer have both declared that no-one in the Faroe Islands should eat pilot whale meat and blubber due to the alarming health threat posed to consumers by the high levels of heavy metals and organochlorines found in these creatures. These warnings from two of the world’s leading experts on the human health impacts of consuming such contaminants are being ignored by the Faroese Government and many of the population.

On health grounds alone, these whales should not have been killed. Combine that with the inherent cruelty, and serious questions continue to be asked of this highly modern society as to why the needless massacre of pilot whales continues.

The new regulations will restrict the implements used to the round-ended hook and the new spinal lance, with the traditional hook and knife only being permitted under special circumstances (we don’t yet know what these are). This might bring improvements and may result in the more humane killing of fewer whales, but it is deeply disappointing that the hunts continue and the regulations will not to be introduced for another two years.

My years of studying the Faroese pilot whale hunt and the methods used to kill the whales have led me to be very critical of the round-ended hook that is supposedly a humane replacement for the traditional sharp-ended hook. The Faroese veterinary scientists have not published essential data to show that the hook does not cause tissue tearing, pain or distress to the whales. A whale’s blowhole is a remarkably refined evolutionary development which allows it to breathe in and out in about a second, without letting any water enter the lungs. It can be speculated that sticking a metal hook into the blowhole and dragging a large whale through the water must cause alarm, distress and pain.

When in the Faroes in 2011, I was shown the new spinal lance and how it worked. I could see that used properly it could be an effective method of severing the spinal column, including the main blood vessel to the brain, inducing loss of consciousness and death in a few seconds.

However, to achieve this the lance must be placed in a very specific position near the blowhole and this requires the whale to be stranded on the beach and restrained. The lance simply cannot be used humanely if the whale is in the shallows or deeper water, or if the slaughterer is balancing precariously on rocks.

My conclusion is that the new regulations will not reduce the inherent cruelty of these hunts unless they are limited to a very small number of whales and that whales are only slaughtered if they have been successfully stranded on the beach. This, however, would not remove the stress of the drive and stranding. The driving and slaughter of large groups of whales will always be unacceptably inhumane.

It is 29 years since I first went to the Faroe Islands to investigate the pilot whale hunt. We arrived in Fuglafjørður just as a pod of 54 had been killed and spent the day wading around in their blood as the butchering and distribution of meat and blubber took place. We learnt a lot that day and during our trip. Even then, we were told that while people liked the pilot whale meat and blubber, they did not really need it.

While we have not been able to end the hunt, we have brought world attention to it and EIA’s work has contributed to a reduction in the number of whales being killed, the establishment of a world-leading programme of research into the human health impacts of consuming polluted whale products, some improvements to the killing methods and total awareness among the Islanders that this slaughter must end.

One of my abiding memories of our first trip was the hunt being described to us by the Director of the Faroese Government as ‘a combination of sport, tradition and a way of obtaining cheap food’.

But this is the 21st century and none of those justifications remain valid, from either a moral or a medical standpoint.