Health risks may spell end to Faroe Islands dolphin drives

Posted: 18 July 2011

Author: Beverley Bailey

Growing evidence of the health dangers of eating whale and dolphin meat are at last being taken seriously by the authorities in the Faroe Islands where each year a major dolphin slaughter (or grind) takes place.

Entire pods of long finned pilot whales and other dolphins including pregnant mothers and calves, are driven into small bays and slaughtered. The average death toll tops 1,000 dolphins annually. The last one, in May this year, saw 220 pilot whales killed.

Pilot whale slaughter, Faroes
Pilot whales being killed and landed on a Faroe Island beach. Photo © Simon Heptinstall

Recent research in both Japan and the United States into populations that regularly eat produce from whales and dolphins has provided evidence of additional health risks associated with consumption, on top of that already obtained in the Faroes.

This earlier research, reported in the New Scientist in 2008, found that Faroese people who have regularly consumed pilot whale faced several health risks including foetal damage to the development of the nervous and neurological systems and to the immune system of children. It also revealed an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease.

The risks are present because of the high levels in the oceans of persistent organic pollutants (POPs), a deadly mix of plastics and other chemical wastes that will never totally degrade. These find their way up the marine food chain, multiplying in ever increasing amounts until they are most dense within the bodies of the largest marine mammals and fish – the apex predators.

The man-made and naturally occurring presence of methyl mercury, another toxic substance, is also on the increase. It has been shown to be at dangerously high levels in apex predators around the world including pilot whales and other dolphins, and whales.

New recommendations

Chief Physician, Dr Pal Weihe, from the Faroese Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health, who has himself played a key role in much of the research into the results of eating pilot whales, has been trying to get the Government to ban the consumption of the meat and blubber for three years.

To date, the reaction has been to simply halve the recommended intake of meat and blubber per adult, per year to 4kg. Enough pilot whales are killed each year to provide each of the 50,000 residents with around 10kg each.

The recommendations also acknowledge the risks to foetuses that Dr Weihe’s research revealed, stating that girls and women who are planning to have children should refrain entirely from eating blubber; women who are pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to get pregnant within the next six months shouldn’t eat the meat; and that the kidneys and livers of the pilot whales should not be eaten by anyone.

Pilot whale meat
Pilot whale meat illegally on sale, Faroe Islands. Photo credit: Earthrace

A team from the Earthrace conservation organisation has discovered that, whilst fewer women eat dolphin anymore, and most would certainly never feed it to their children, many Faroese men of all ages continue to do so. Some admitted being worried about the risks but said they would continue almost as a “protest against the protests against the grinds”.

It has also been seen for sale openly in shops and restaurants including in the capital, Torshawn, despite it being illegal to sell it on the Islands.

Step forward

In an average year, the amount of dolphin meat provided by the grinds far outweighs that which is consumed, leaving an annual excess. People who store the meat and blubber in their freezers simply tended to chuck out the old from the year before, and replace it with new dolphin meat each year.

While on the Faroes this summer, Earthrace spoke to several people who actively take part in the grinds who told the team that there was increasing talk amongst them of the possibility of the Government introducing a quota that would reduce the numbers of pilot whales and other dolphins they were allowed to kill annually.

These hunters seemed open to the idea as they admitted not liking the idea of there being an ever-increasing excess of dolphin meat and blubber as is happening in Japan with its own ‘whale mountain’. The Japanese whale mountain was caused by fewer people eating whale because of health risks, and led to the Government there selling whale meat into schools at a third of the market price in order to dispose of it.

Whilst it would be preferable to Earthrace to see the grinds stop immediately because of the suffering of the pilot whales when they are being herded and killed, talk of a quota is a big step forward. The organisation now plans to work with supporters in the Faroe Islands and lobby the Government to put a quota in place that would reflect the current levels of consumption of the dolphins.

Ultimately, the organisation believes it’s the health risks to humans that will eventually bring an end to the grinds – and to whaling - altogether. If no-one is eating whales and dolphins, there cannot be any justification for continuing the hunting of them.

Beverley Bailey is a staff member of Earthrace Conservation Organisation.

Dr Weihe's latest research findings were presented to a recent interantional conference on  Arctic Climate Change.  Since this article was written, Earthrace Conservation has announced the launch of a new chapter based on the Faroe Islands. It’s first time any International marine conservation group has ever had a presence there on a permanent basis.