The population of 46,000, descendants of ninth-century Norwegian settlers, inhabit 18 of the islands and depend entirely on commercial fishing for their livelihood. The Faeroese rely on Denmark for their defense and for representation in most international fora, but have their own language, flag, bank notes, stamps and passport, political parties and paliament - called the Lagting. Unlike Denmark, they are not members of the European Community.
For at least four hundred years, the Faeroese have hunted the pods of pilot whales which swim close to their shores. This hunt, known as the grindadrap, takes place mainly in the summer months and has changed little in style or substance since it began, although the introduction of modern boats, radios and echo-sounders has made it easier to find and herd the whales.
A grindadrap begins whenever a pod of whales is spotted close to the coast. The boat which first sights the pod informs any others in the vincinity and together they form a semi-circle around the whales and begin gradually herding them towards bays.
Alerted to the whales' arrival by an annoucement over local radio, islanders wade out from the beach into the water and attempt to bury hooks, or gadds, attached to ropes into the whales' heads. The whales are then hauled ashore, where they are killed with a special knife, called a grindkniver, which is used to sever the cartoid artery and jugular vein.
The whales are cut up and the meat and blubber are distributed, free of charge, to the region's inhabitants with priority being given to those who actually participated in the hunt. The person who first spotted the whales is entitled to choose the largest whale or its equivilant in smaller whales; the whale foremen (grindaforemenn), who oversee the drive and killing of the whales, are each guaranteed one per cent of the meat.
In recent years, Faeroese pilot whaling has received a great deal of international criticism. It is argued that the killing of the whales is cruel and inhumane; that the Faeroese no longer need the whalemeant to survive as they are now a modern society with a high standard of living; and that much of the meat is wasted.
Faeroese scientists argue that there are no signs the whale population is being depleted by the hunt and that the area in which it takees place is small compared to the total range of the species. Other scientists and whale conservationists argue, however, that the population size is unknown and express concern that these whales are being hunted indiscriminately with whole social groups, including calves and pregnant females, being taken at the same time. It is not known what effect the removal of complete groups in this way could have on the population's gene pool.
They further point out that there are large fluctuations in the size of the hunts, and that, over the last two decades, the average number of whales killed annually has been the highest ever recorded. Between 1970 and 1979, an average of 960 pilot whales were killed each year. In 1981, 2,973 were killed, and thereafter, the average catch has remained high with the annual average for the 1980s standing at approximately 2,000 animals.
The Faeroese have now begun killing large numbers of other small cetacean species. In 1988, 544 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were killed in a single day.
This unstable pattern of increasingly heavy catches is very similar to that of a pilot whale hunt which used to occur off the Newfoundland coast in Canada but ended in the early 1970s after the stock was decimated by over-exploitation.
Of particular concern is that fact that the whales are taken from a population whose size has not been assessed. Scientists do not even know whether there are one, two, or more large pilot whale stocks in the North Atlantic. Nor is there any certainty about whether or not thw whales are being affected by other human activities such as pollution, entanglement in nets or over-fishing.
Ironically, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest that pilot whale meat is hazardous to the islanders' health. Pilot whales in the North Atlantic, along with many other species of marine mammals, are heavily contaminated with mercury. This may be the result of pollution or chemical upwellings of naturally occuring mercury from the volcanic vents along the North Atlantic ridge.
In 1981 the Faeroes' own Department of Hygiene recommended that because of the levels of contamination, no islander should eat whale meat more than once a week and that the whales' liver shouldn't be eaten at all. It was recommended that the total per capita meat consumption should be limited to 14kg (31lb) a year. Although the per capita share of whale meat is actually nearer 30kg (66lb), the Faeroese insist that they have reduced the amount of meat they eat. However, they do still eat large quantities of blubber and more recent analyses have shown that it is here that most of the contaminants are likely to be concentrated.
In addition, at the time the Department of Hygiene made its recommendation, it had only been able to test for the presence of mercury in the whales' tissues. It has since been shown that the meant and blubber also contain very high levels of PCBs, DDT and dieldrin.
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