Wailing on Whalers (and whales)

A few days ago a couple of my facebook ‘friends’ shared a link to page about an annual whaling hunt in the Faroe Islands. One of them commented “OMG this is horrific. How on EARTH is this allowed?”

The link was accompanied by a photo that showed a very small village next to a bay where a large area of the water is stained red with whale blood. It looked rather macabre. Curious to find out more I clicked and had a read. The page was written in Chinese and so I had Google translate it for me. The resultant English translation wasn’t great, to say the least, but it did give me a feel for the kind of rhetoric being used. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Denmark is our shame, the ocean is bloody red, but this is not caused by natural climate. It’s because of the cruelty that the human beings (civilised human) kill hundreds of the famous and intelligent Calderon dolphins.

It ends by urging the world to oppose this event (presumably the author wants the Danish or Faroese government to ban it):

Its enough!
we seen enough!

We will send this mail…

…until this email arrives in any association defending the animals
he arrived in the hands of straights environmental organizations

we won’t only read.
we will not stand idly by

That would make us accomplices…

The author uses the world accomplice here because earlier he or she describes the annual whaling as “murder”, indeed as you might imagine the text is accompanied by various photos of bloodied and dead whales. They also assert or imply that the whalers generally enjoy prolonging and maximizing the suffering of the animals.

Here are the facts about the annual event according to Wikipedia:

The hunts, called grindadráp in Faroese, are non-commercial and are organized on a community level; anyone can participate. The hunters first surround the pilot whales with a wide semicircle of boats. The boats then drive the pilot whales slowly into a bay or to the bottom of a fjord.

Archaeological evidence from the early Norse settlement of the Faroe Islands c. 1200 years ago, in the form of pilot whale bones found in household remains in Gøta, indicates that the pilot whale has long had a central place in the everyday life of Faroe Islanders. The meat and blubber of the pilot whale have been an important part of the islanders’ staple diet. The islanders have particularly valued blubber: both as food and for processing into oil, which they used for lighting fuel and other purposes. They also used parts of the skin of pilot whales for ropes and lines, while utilising the stomachs as floats. Records of drive hunts in the Faroe Islands date back to 1584.

What’s interesting and why I decided to write about the Faroe Islands annual whale hunt is that the hunts have been regulated by government and supervised by government officials since 1932. There are now legal restrictions on what equipment can be used to capture and kill the whales. Harpoons, spears and firearms are prohibited, and only hooks and ropes may be used. So that the killings may be supervised by local officials, the whalers are forbidden to kill the whales (perhaps more quickly using harpoons) out at sea and instead must drag the whales back to shore and kill them individually on the shoreline. This is what leads to the rather vivid blood-red patch of sea close to the shoreline, which makes for the sort of dramatic and alarming photos that are likely to draw OMGs! and other shocked responses from people who see it.

It seems that regulation was introduced in the early thirties, not out of concern for whales, but as a way of setting in legal stone, as it were, the distributing equally among residents the spoils of the whale drives – something which had been a uncoerced and centuries old tradition until them. Indeed, today the local legal representative is not only responsible for supervising the whale hunt but also for distributing the spoils.

The author of the anti-whaling message discussed above, who wants government to and believes it can save the whales, is quick to point out the details of the way in which the whales are killed and how this causes suffering:

They don’t die instantly

they are not going to die soon

they are cut 1, 2 or 3 times with thick hooks
them repeatedly scratched by rough skin fishing hook

And at that time the dolphins produce a grim cry like that of a new-born child

This is hardly a good argument for more government action given that whalers have no choice but to kill the whales in this manner in accordance with government regulations. In short, the government forces whalers to kill the whales in this way. If the whalers were free to kill whales as they wished they would probably harpoon them out at sea as they have done in the past, many moons ago. Modern harpoon technology is specifically designed to minimise the suffering of the animal, but regulations prohibit its use. More on that later.

However, it’s clear from the entire text that the author isn’t arguing for quicker, more humane killing of the whales. They argue that killing whales is immoral because of the suffering it causes and therefore those who do so should stop or be prevented from doing so by the law, regardless of any need the hunting of whales may be fulfilling for the people. As it happens the Faroese do have a need for whale meat and blubber, and don’t just spend hours chasing whales for kicks.

The Faroe Islands has very little arable land and none set aside for permanent crops, which means they have to mostly eat salted or dried food during the winter months. According to Wikipedia:

Whale meat is an important source of food during winter months. An annual catch of 956 pilot whales (1990–1999) is roughly equivalent to 500 tonnes of meat and blubber, some 30% of all meat produced locally in the Faroe Islands.

Did our self-proclaimed friend of the whales ever stop to think that the people of the Faroe Islands might be hunting whales for a reason, i.e. in order to maintain the best possible standard of living in a harsh environment with limited resources? it seems not. Then again, perhaps he or she does understand that the whales are hunted to fulfill human need, but deems that irrelevant because they believe the lives of the humans on those islands to be worth less than the lives of the creatures that inhabit the seas around it; or that the two are equally worthy but humans shouldn’t use the whales to fulfill their needs.

There’s nothing to stop our campaigner trying to convince the population of the Faroe Islands that they shouldn’t eat whale – which is abundant and costs them very little to acquire – and should instead eat only sea birds and fish or otherwise be prepared to pay for imported salted/dried foods. However, his or her chances of convincing the Faroese to change their behavior in this way, I would guess, are probably close to zero. For the obvious reason that they would gain nothing from doing so.

To animal rights activist around the world looking in on the Faroese people, not killing whales is the more satisfactory state of the Faroese people’s affairs, which activists desire to manifest. But to the Faroese themselves not killing whales would be a less satisfactory state of affairs and so they have no desire to replace what is to them a more satisfactory state with a less satisfactory state. Indeed, no human would, but that is what campaigners like our author demand of people like the Faroese.

As we touched on earlier, there’s another problem caused by government control over the whale drives, which is that it prevents the use of firearms or modern harpoon technology. Modern explosive harpoons are specifically designed to cause the least amount of suffering to whales. In other words they are designed to kill them as quickly as possible. Even if anti-whaling campaigners got what they wanted and the Faroese were banned from hunting whales, then it wouldn’t save the whales. Instead it would just make killing the whales around the Faroe Islands more lucrative for outsiders. This is because there would still be a demand for whale – after all just because the law says they cannot have it doesn’t change the reality that the Faroese people need it – only now it would be much more scarce and more costly to acquire (the risk of prosecution etc). Which in turn would mean the Faroese would be willing to pay (probably quite a lot) for it. This is a situation that could easily lead to more whales overall being hunted and killed by whalers from surrounding countries supplying the newly emerged and lucrative market that would be the Faroese. Which would clearly be counter to the goal of the anti-whaling campaigners.

Anti-whaling campaigners want humans to stop killing whales, but the only way that’s going to happen is if the global demand for whale products drops to nothing or practically nothing. If that time ever comes, then only the innate human desire to innovate and improve, property rights, and free-markets will bring it about. In fact if it wasn’t for markets and human ingenuity whales would almost certainly already be a thing of the past and there wouldn’t be any whales for animal rights activists today to decry the hunting of. In the last half of the 19th century whales were facing extinction because whale oil was the most common illuminant used in oil burning lamps (which were in widespread use back then). However, from 1870 to 1900 John. D. Rockefella’s Standard Oil Company managed to reduce the price of Kerosene oil so much, raise its quality, and produce so much more of it that it came to replace whale oil as the illuminant of choice for oil-burning lamps the world over. This meant the demand for whale oil dropped dramatically and rapidly, and the whales were saved from extinction. Of course, it was never Rockefella’s intention to save some animals from extinction, but the desire and freedom to produce better products more cheaply for people desiring better things turns out to be a very effective (and not to mention peaceful and voluntary) way of doing so. The use of government action to save wildlife, on the other hand, is much less effective, much less peaceful, and often creates perverse incentives to kill more animals in a less humane way.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but in fact no one who advocates the banning of whaling is really much of a friend of the whales or genuinely concerned with their survival. Unfortunately, it seems they are often more concerned with appearing morally superior to and condemning as savage people like the Faroese who regularly hunt whales. Animal rights activist may appear morally superior, but they are quite happy to point the gun of government at peaceful people, which reveals that their apparent moral principles are really just preferences. Ones which they are prepared to use force to have met.


  1. A few things I think I should correct (seeing as I’m Faroese and know the process):

    1. The killing methods enforced by the government is the most humane way to kill the whales, and I would argue that these whales are killed as humanely (if not more) as most farmed animals. You would need an extremely high powered rifle to penetrate the skull, not to mention the inherent danger of having several people carrying and using firearms in a large crowd. Modern explosive harpoons are designed for larger whales, if they were used then there wouldn’t be much left of the whales to eat because they would be more or less blown to bits. Not to mention the fact that they are very expensive.

    2. This is a noncommercial opportunistic hunt, which is better described as a harvest than as a hunt. Selling the meat is illegal (although it does occasionally turn up in local shops). There is no demand for the meat outside the Faroe Islands. There is a possibility that it would become commercial if it was banned, but I find that unlikely, and non Faroese would certainly not be involved.


    • Thanks for reading and for providing additional information, I appreciate it. I understand and accept your point that the explosive harpoons would be too powerful and thus inappropriate for killing these particular whales. I have some questions, which I’d certainly appreciate your answers to.

      You are of the conviction that the enforced method is also the most humane way to kill the whales; is this a view held by the majority of Faroese? I’d be interested to know. If the whale harvest wasn’t regulated/supervised, do you think it would be conducted differently? Would some people kill the whales in a less humane way, or would they do it the same way without being forced to? How would other people in the community react if the whales were killed in a less humane way?



      • That view is held by most Faroese. If the regulations were suddenly removed the hunt would probably not change. It may have been slightly different if the regulations were never implemented, and would probably stay the way it was at the time (which I can’t comment on too much since that was before my time) which involved spears and was more inhumane.

        There are improvements being made to the killing methods. There are two good examples of this. The first is that the whales that don’t beach themselves are dragged on shore with hooks which used to be sharp and driven into the whale’s flesh, but now there are blunt hooks that slot nicely into the blow holes. The second is that the whales are usually killed by severing the spinal chord with a knife which generally takes about 2 cuts, or about 2-3 seconds (I wouldn’t be the one to know the exact figures but that should be pretty close), now a spinal lance (basically a short ergonomic spear) is being implemented which can do that with one thrusting motion in fractions of a second. Basically any simple and cheap method of making the hunt more humane is being considered and the hunt is as humane as it feasibly could be with our current resources.

        As for reactions to a less humane hunt, few would be appalled, many would be slightly annoyed, and the rest probably wouldn’t care too much (within reason of course). Occasionally there is a hunt that for whatever reason turns bad (usually it shouldn’t have started because of bad conditions), and people will complain and make a point about it on the news. But I don’t think less humane hunts would happen because the current humane methods are also more or less the easiest methods.


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