I spoke at a recent debate that was broadcast live around the Faroe Islands, and the topic was their whale cull called “The Grind”. I’m opposed to this practice. Here are the reasons I gave:
1) The herding and killing of pilot whales happens in an uncontrolled environment, and it leads to considerable animal suffering. I accept that improvements in hardware and training have been made, but I still see animal suffering as a major issue that cannot be overcome while these wild animals are killed. Historically most coastal countries practiced whaling, my own included. But almost all have now stopped the practice. Societies gradually change what they deem is acceptable and what is not – For whaling, most are now united in opposition to it.
2) The Faroe Islands is part of an integrated supply chain for food imports and exports. Wander through any local grocery store and there is a myriad of foods from all over the world. In terms of food security, there remain considerable local sources of animal protein regularly hunted / gathered freely by Faroese, including fish, shellfish, lobster, guillemot, shags, hair, plus farmed animals such as sheep and geese. We are not asking that Faroese become vegan, nor that they import more pork and chicken from Denmark, but rather they make greater use of their own natural resources while giving up whale.
3) I accept that the grind is valued culturally, but part of the problem is the sheer volume of whales killed. Some years over 1000 may be harvested, and in the eyes of many, this far exceeds any claim to aboriginal hunting rights.
4) Long Finned Pilot whale numbers are not well understood in the North West Atlantic. The last major surveys date back to the 90s, but did not separate out effectively the regional populations. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission is conducting a survey in 2016 and it is hoped this will shed greater light on population distribution, but today, how many whales pass through Faroese waters is simply not known.
5) Pilot whales are pelagic – that is they roam around the oceans and seas. The Faroe Islands are on their migratory routes as they follow food sources, but they also travel to the waters of many other countries. It is unfair of the Faroe Islanders to claim all these whales as their own. If we consider pilot whales as a fish, its harvesting would normally be allocated via quota agreements with other countries. In this case, no such agreements exist. The Faroe Islands arbitrarily continues hunting them but with no actual mandate from any other country other than their own. Would Britain for example agree to the whale harvest? Probably not, and yet they could claim part ownership of the pilot whale population based on its migratory patterns.
6) The image of the Faroe Islands globally will be harmed by a continuation of the Grind. It runs the risk of being stigmatized as a brutal place, which is a shame considering the myriad of positive elements of both the Islands and her people.
7) Pilot whales are high in mercury and consumption of their meat / blubber leads to mercury buildup in the consumer. A few years ago we convinced a staunch advocate of the Grind to undergo a blood test, and his mercury level came out many times the maximum recommended limit. He subsequently gave up eating whale. But like many Faroese, he had no idea his levels were high because the onset of mercury poisoning is pernicious. It is a gradual loss in memory and cognitive function, and may be paired with increases in headaches and mood swings. But because the changes are slow, sufferers rarely recognise it.
8) This health argument similarly applies to Persistent Organic Pollutants such as DDT, 245T, and Endocrine disruptors such as flame-retardants. With pilot whales being near the top of the food chain, they accumulate these chemicals, but unlike mercury, these do not gradually disappear from the body. Once they get inside you, they remain there indefinitely – Or until you are eaten by something else, in which case they are passed on. The trouble for the Faroese people is these chemicals may wreak havoc on the human body, especially the brain, yet our understanding of these remains patchy at best. It is a shame that companies may develop all range of chemicals and release them into the food chain and environment via clothes, foods, packaging, cars, electronics and other products, but with little or no oversight in terms of long-term health or environmental impact. Never the less they are present and increasing in marine ecosystems and especially in pilot whales, and the Faroese people are playing roulette with their bodies and brains while they continue to consume whale. In published research from the Faroese Chief Medical Officer, 7-year old children who consume just moderate amounts of whale lag on average 7-months behind in cognitive function compared with children consuming none. Or put another way, kids that consume whale are not so smart. POPs and other toxins may not be killing the Faroese people, but they are definitely impacting on the intellectual development of their children.
9) I mentioned above that POPs do not leave an animal (or human) body until they themselves get consumed. Well there is in fact one exception, and that is lactating mothers pass POPs onto their infants. This phenomenon is well documented in several cetacean populations. In dolphins off the Florida coast for example, POP toxicity in calves is now so high that most die within the first year. They receive these toxins directly from their mother’s milk. So Faroese women considering having babies should definitely not eat any whale meat or blubber whatsoever. But because POPs remain in a body indefinitely, even young girls should abstain, lest they destine their future babies to chemical induced retardation.
10) The final consideration is do the Faroese people really want groups of marijuana smoking volunteers descending on their Islands each summer to consume local supplies of toilet paper, and clog up their courts? These are not really the sorts of tourist you want, nor need. I said in 2011 that if the Faroe Islands did not reduce or stop the grind, they faced becoming the “Taiji” of Europe. In many ways this is starting to happen, and 2014 may be a small taste of what is to come.