Whatever our emotions tell us, not all whaling is the same

The pilot whale hunt is still largely unchanged for hundreds of years. EileenSanda, CC BY-SA

In the mid-20th century pilot whaling still took place in many north Atlantic nations such as the US and Canada. Now, only the Faraoese have a dedicated pilot whale hunt, the grindadráp. Many of us don’t like the idea of this.

I am a scientist. I do not profit from the pilot whale hunt nor do I have anything to gain by writing this article. Indeed, I risk retaliation from those that feel what I say departs from the accepted mantra.

I study and work with dolphins and whales and for a while I spent more time around dolphins than people. For no logical reason, these animals are special to me, and that they are hunted upsets me. But these are personal opinions which have no place in this debate – a debate that is too easily ruled by emotions.

No conservation threat

The Faroese catch around 900 pilot whales, actually a type of dolphin, every year. This catch level does not threaten the conservation status of this population estimated to have more than 750,000 whales. Often forgotten or ignored is that an estimated several hundred pilot whales from the same populations are drowned every year in the nets of our fishing fleets.

The scale of the Faroese pilot whale hunt is very different to the industrial whaling led by the UK and Norway during the 19th and 20th centuries which, in only 50 to 70 years, over-exploited whales in the Antarctic Ocean and drove them almost to extinction. Nor is it comparable to the commercial pilot whaling in Newfoundland from the 1950s and 1960s which over-exploited the stock. In comparison, the Faroese pilot whale hunt has continued for close to 1,000 years without over-exploitation, with records going back to 1584.

Since pilot whales are top predators in the north Atlantic, they accumulate levels of heavy metals and other pollutants that make their meat hazardous to eat. Yet the hunt is part of the social fabric of the islands, and the meat is eaten nevertheless.

The whale hunt – the Grindadrap – has been going on for centuries. British Maria Expedition

No good way of killing

The Faroese pilot whale hunt is a dramatic sight. The animals are driven close to the shore in shallow bays and slaughtered with knives and lances. It results in a lot of blood in the water, clearly visible from the shore where many often gather to watch.

The need for animals that we eat to be killed quickly and humanely is well understood and agreed. The pilot whale killing method was chosen to ensure that the whales die as quickly as possible, considering all the factors in the hunt.

Killing an animal is not a pleasant business, be it a whale, a deer, or a chicken. However, all welfare issues considered, I do not see how the pilot whale hunt is different from non-stalking hunts for animals on land, many of which take place in countries where opponents to the whale hunt live. Time-to-death is kept as short as possible, even if sometimes it’s longer than we would like. One thing is certain: it’s much shorter than the time it takes a pilot whale to drown in a fishing net that we use to catch our daily fish.

The hunt itself is a different story. We have very recently stopped hunting foxes with dogs in the UK on welfare grounds. Driving pilot whales into bays to kill them takes time and is not unlike the process of hunting with dogs, and I think it raises welfare questions that need to be discussed.

I personally have difficulties weighing these welfare questions against those raised by the industrial farming which generates most of the meat we consume in anti-whaling nations. Anyone that signs a petition to stop this hunt only to go home and roast a chicken that never saw daylight or moved much when it was reared is a hypocrite. Would it be more ethical of the Faroese to replace the wild-caught meat they have available to them with imported, industrially produced meat?

Is this more or less humane than hunting wild animals? Erik S. Lesser/EPA

Not all whaling is the same

Many of the arguments against the Faroese subsistence whaling should equally apply to the subsistence whaling that goes on in other countries, such as among the Inuit and Eskimo of the US and Canada and the Siberian peoples in Russia. One argument against subsistence hunting is that as the world develops, access to other food sources increases. But alternative food sources are as prevalent in these other countries as they are in the Faroe Islands. Yet the Intuit and Eskimo for example are not subject to the same criticism, and are even lauded for protecting their cultural traditions – are Faroese traditions somehow less worthy of protection?

We need an unemotional public debate about all forms of whaling, and a commonly agreed definition of subsistence whaling, dietary or cultural, that is more tightly defined and less open to interpretation. The debate is too driven by emotions, with too many groups that stand to gain while whaling remains a Punch and Judy show. As Gandhi said: “Anger and intolerance are the enemies of correct understanding.”

We must never again allow whaling on an industrial scale. But I enjoy my venison and I have no problem with deer hunts. I am one of the millions of hypocrites that eat meat but cannot bear the idea of killing an animal myself. I eat tuna despite its health risks – if I was born in the Faroe Islands, wouldn’t I equally enjoy my pilot whale?