Government of the Faroe Islands

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The Pilot Whale Hunt – A sustainable catch

- Introduction

- The pilot whale – an abundant species

- Whale catches in figures

- The pilot whale hunt in stages:

Driving the whales

Killing the whales

Distribution of a catch

Storage and preparation

Introduction

Pilot whales are taken for food in the Faroe Islands. Both the meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been and continue to be a staple part of the national diet. Catches of whales are shared largely without the exchange of money among the participants in a hunt and residents of the local district where they are landed. This also means that the economic value of pilot whale meat and blubber does not appear as a part of the GDP of the Faroes, but its significance can be measured against the economic and environmental costs of importing the same amount of food. An annual catch of 950 whales (the average annual catch over the past ten years, 1990-1999) is roughly equivalent to 500 tons of meat and blubber, some 30% of all meat produced locally in the Faroes.

 The pilot whale hunt in the Faroes is, by its very nature, a dramatic and bloody sight. Entire schools of whales are killed on the shore and in the shallows of bays with knives which are used to sever the major blood supply to the brain. This is the most efficient and humane means of killing these animals under the circumstances, but it naturally results in a lot of blood in the water. It is also understandable that there have been many strong reactions to media reports and pictures of the hunt in other countries, especially in urban communities, where most people have never actually been witness to the slaughtering processes from which their own meat derives.

 The pilot whale – an abundant species

There are two species of pilot whales commonly known as the long-finned and the short-finned pilot whale. The pilot whales found in the North Atlantic are of the long-finned species (Globicephala melas), and are known to the Faroese as grindahvalur. They occur widely and in great numbers in temperate, sub-arctic waters in both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Long-finned pilot whales migrate in schools, or pods, numbering anything from just a few to up to a thousand or more. The males can reach a maximum weight of 2.5 tons and a maximum length of 6.5 metres, while the females can reach maximums of 1.5 tons and 5.5 metres respectively. The pilot whale stock in the eastern and central North Atlantic is estimated to number 778,000.  

A comprehensive assessment of the status of pilot whales in the North Atlantic was requested through NAMMCO (the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission) in 1992. The study was carried out by a special Study Group established by ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea), comprised of most of the leading scientific experts on this species. The final report of the Study Group from April 1996, as well as new information from the NASS-95 cetacean survey provided the basis for the conclusion of the NAMMCO Scientific Committee in 1997 that the annual catch of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands has not had a noticeable effect on the stock. The average annual catch over the past 10 years (1990-1999) has been 950 animals, representing less than 0.1% of the stock.  

Based on this advice, the Management Committee of NAMMCO concluded at its 1997 annual meeting that the drive hunt of pilot whales in the Faroes is sustainable.

 Whale catches in figures

Records of whale catches in the Faroe Islands extend as far back as to 1584, and the annual statistical record has been unbroken since 1709. Such documentation is unique and makes Faroese whaling probably the best-documented use of a wild species anywhere in the world. Statistics show a long-term annual average catch of pilot whales of around 850 animals. These statistics also give a complete record of the time of year and location of pilot whale hunts. Such information can also be valuable for scientists in assessing the occurrence of whales in relation to the occurrence of their primary prey, squid, as well as in relation to other factors such as changes in sea temperature and other oceanographic conditions. 

For a full overview of pilot whale catches this century, click here.  

 

The pilot whale hunt in stages

Driving the whales

Whale drives only take place when a school of pilot whales is sighted close to land, which is most often from a local fishing boat or ferry, and when sea and weather conditions make it possible. This can take place at any time of the year, but catches are most common in July and August when the days are long and the weather is more stable. Notice of the school is sent to the elected whaling officials and to the district sheriff, and is spread as widely and quickly as possible in the local community so that enough men and boats can join in the drive. Employers usually make allowances for members of their staff to take time off during drives. The boats gather in a wide semicircle behind the whales and slowly and quietly begin to drive them towards the chosen authorised bay. On the whaling foreman’s signal, stones attached to lines are thrown into the water behind the whales, driving them towards the beach where they become stranded. According to the regulations, any group of whales which cannot be beached in this manner must be driven out to sea again.

Killing the whales

Men gather on the shore to kill the beached whales. Ideally, most of the whales will strand far enough up on shore that it is unnecessary to secure them. However, those remaining in the shallows must be secured and hauled closer. Traditionally, this is done by driving a steel hook, or gaff, with a rope attached to it into the back of the whale. A new blunt hook inserted into an airsac in the whale’s blowhole has now been widely tested in practice and it is hoped that this new equipment may eventually replace the traditional gaff as the standard method for securing whales. The whale is killed using a sharp knife to cut down to sever the spinal cord, which also severs the major blood supply to the brain, ensuring both the loss of consciousness and death within seconds.

"See also: Whaling and animal welfare

 

Distribution of a catch

The catch is divided among those taking part in the drive and the local residents of the whaling bays and districts in accordance with a complex, traditional community sharing system.  The division of the catch is administered by the relevant district sheriff.  The catch is divided into shares known in Faroese as a skinn, which is a age-old measurement value that derives from agricultural practices. One skinn is roughly equivalent to 34 kilos of blubber 38 kilos of meat. Whales in a catch are numbered and their value in skinn is marked in roman numerals.

When the calculation of the shares is complete, recipients receive notice of the number of the whale from which their share is to be taken, and the amount of skinn to which they are entitled. Together with others who have a share of the same whale, they butcher their share from the carcass and take their meat and blubber home themselves. This must be done as quickly as possible after the shares have been announced to ensure that the catch is properly divided and to avoid spoilage and waste. There is no industrial processing of any whale catch, and the local municipality where the catch takes place is responsible for clearing all remains within 24 hours of the division of the catch.

In most districts it is also customary to allot a share to the local hospitals and other institutions such as nursing homes and day-care centres. In a few of the bigger villages and towns, a small amount taken from the private shares is sold to the local food stores. The maximum retail price is regulated by governmental order and is about half the price of other meats such as beef or lamb.

Storage and preparation

The meat and blubber is stored, prepared and eaten in a variety of ways. When fresh, the meat is boiled or served as steaks, with blubber and potatoes. The meat and blubber can be kept in the freezer, or preserved in the traditional way by salting or outdoor wind-drying. Thin slivers of the blubber are also a popular accompaniment to dried fish.