Livelihood, cruelty, extinction? The recent killings of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the Faroe Islands

By Dr Nikolas Sellheim
Image by Annie Spratt from Unsplash.

Dr Nikolas Sellheim

Dr Nikolas Sellheim investigates and evaluates the international outcry in response to dolphin hunting in the Faroe Islands, tracing its history and outlining the Faroese Government’s options. This work was originally published here and has been reprinted with permission of the author. 


News broke that on 12 September 2021 the Faroe Islands saw one of the largest killings of Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Leucopleurus acutus). Numerous international news outlets, such as the British BBC, the US Washington Post, or the German Tagesschau – to name a few – reported about this.

Screenshot from Tagesschau depicting international outcry against dolphin huntScreenshot from Tagesschau, 15 September 2019, 20:15 EET

While numbers differ, between 1,400-1,500 animals were driven into a bay and were then slaughtered. Based on the available catch data by the Faroese government, this is the largest number of dolphins or pilot whales killed in the 2000s (here). Not surprisingly, the killing of these dolphins sparked an outcry in the animal rights/welfare community. Organisations such as Sea Shepherd or PETA have campaigned to stop this activity for many years. But also in the Faroe Islands themselves, this particular dolphin drive was criticised for errors that were made and general lack of information, as several news outlets report (e.g. here).

A detailed history of Faroese whaling has been provided by numerous scholars, but I can recommend Russell Fielding’s The Wake of the Whale (here), which I reviewed for Polar Record in 2020 (here).

The Grindadráp – A centuries-old means of sustenance

When driving through the Faroe Islands, it becomes very clear that the North Atlantic climate does not provide for much else than sheep and fish. But what it also provides are long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas), bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), Atlantic white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris), harbour porpoise (Phocaena phocaena) and Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Not surprisingly, these species have been made use of as a source of food, ever since the Faroe Islands were first populated by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries.

In what is known as Grindadráp (Faroese for “pilot whale [‘grind‘] slaughter [‘dráp‘]”), pods of whales and/or dolphins are opportunistically driven into a bay where they are slaughtered by severing the main blood supply to the brain and the main nervous system. Depending on the size of the school, the meat of the whales/dolphins has significantly contributed to the food supply on the Faroe Islands and has not been limited to those having killed the whales. Instead, everybody wishing to obtain whale meat received some.

Over the years, and especially since (Faroese) whaling has entered public discourse, the grind – as it is also called – has come under massive criticism. Since the whales that are slaughtered are small cetaceans, they do not fall under the control of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which has implemented a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985/86. By international standards, it is therefore legal. Even though the Faroe Islands are part of the Kingdom of Denmark, which itself is part of the EU, they enjoy a large degree of autonomy, enabling them to engage in whaling – while whaling is illegal in the EU.

In the Faroe Islands themselves, whaling is rather strictly regulated. Even though it does occur opportunistically, several parliamentary acts and Executive Orders exist that legally frame the grind. You can find an overview of the legal acts as well as links to them here. What is noteworthy in this regard is that issues such as swift killing methods, animal welfare and conservation concerns range rather high on the Faroese legal agenda concerning whaling.

For a map of the Faroe Islands and its authorised whaling villages and bays, please click here.

Animal welfare aspects

The killing of whales – or any other animal, for that matter – is never a pretty sight. I have witnessed the Canadian seal hunt first hand, spent time with the sealers and participated in the hunt itself (here). And getting used to all the blood, blubber and intestines is something I had to struggle with. Seeing whales and dolphins being driven into shallow waters, then their spinal cord being cut and all the blood turning the water red is evokes feelings of disgust and horror in those not being used to it. The twitching of the animals may also lead to the conclusion that it is still alive – even though it may also be the nerves still firing.

Either way, massive concerns over animal welfare issues have been raised by organisations, governments as well as the Faroese themselves. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO), established in 1992 and consisting of the Faroes, Greenland, Norway and Iceland, has therefore established a Committee on Hunting Methods, which aims to make the killing of marine mammals as painless as possible.

In the case of the grind, NAMMCO has developed a manual for the killing of those species being driven into the bay. The manual is available here and its provisions have been inserted into Faroese law. Key aspects of the manual are the swift killing by securing the animal with a dull blowhole hook, which does not cause any wounds or lesions, the severing of the central nervous system with a spinal lance, and the swift bleeding of the entire animal.

Blowhole hook and spinal lance used in dolphin drivesBlowhole hook and spinal lance © NAMMCO, p. 15 & 18 (here)

In addition to the killing methods themselves, the most recent Executive Order also requires the designated whaling bay to be able to accommodate sufficient people to ensure the swift killing of the whales. If that is not the case, the district administrator can order the cancellation of the hunt and have the whales driven back into the sea. In how far that has (ever) happened, I cannot say.

However, this seems to be a crucial issue in ensuring a swift death of the whales. A study from 1999 has shown that in the drive of 47 animals the time-to-death (TTD) in the Faroese whale drive differs significantly:

Time-to-death statistics table for whalesAdapted from Olsen, 1999, p. 10 (here)

Assuming that this was to represent the average for the whale drive, this would mean the following for the recent drive of 1,400 animals.

What the current legal framework does not include is the stress level of the whales during the drive. Contrary to the dolphin drive in Taiji where I witnessed the animals being driven into a bay where they first calmed down before they were killed, in the Faroese whale drive the animals are driven and then killed right away. In a study in Applied Animal Welfare Science from 2019, the authors have shown that the stress level of small cetaceans being driven into a bay is very high and they therefore consider this method inherently inhumane (here). Whether or not this inhumane-ness is justified under the needs aspect of the drive is subject to debate: while the supporters of the drive argue that they do their best to kill the whales as quickly as possible (and the efforts by whalers themselves to develop tools and means to ensure just this proves that they mean what they say [here]), opponents criticise that the end doesn’t justify the means. This is to say that whale meat consumption is not crucial for survival and therefore does not justify the killing.

Conservation aspects

Contrary to the so-called ‘great whales’, which are globally managed by the International Whaling Commission, no such organisation exists for small cetaceans. However, that does not mean that nothing exists at all.

First of all, we must note that the species that are hunted in the Faroes do not create conservation concerns for the IUCN. Based on the information included in the Red List of Threatened Species, all of the Faroese whales are considered Least Concern (LC), which means that even though their populations are to be monitored, they are nevertheless not endangered. The Atlantic white-sided dolphin is not even included in the list.

Internationally, two major instruments are to ensure the conservation of small cetaceans that are killed in the Faroes. First, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) lists all cetaceans, irrespective of their conservation status on Appendix II. This means that while trade is possible, this trade is to be closely monitored. The background of this listing is not necessarily rooted in conservation concerns, but corresponds greatly to political motivation (here).

The second instrument is the Agreement on the Conservation of Small Cetaceans of the Baltic, North East Atlantic, Irish and North Seas (ASCOBANS), which was concluded under the aegis of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention). Aside from the prevention of killing of the 20 species under ASCOBANS, the agreement also aims to reduce ocean noise, to reduce ship strikes and to, generally, ensure a favourable conservation status of these species. However, even though Denmark is party to ASCOBANS, based on the Home Rule Act of 1948 the Faroe Islands enjoy autonomy over the utilisation and management of fisheries and other natural resources. They are consequently not bound to the provisions of ASCOBANS.

Instead, the Faroes are party to the NAMMCO Agreement, which aims at the conservation, rational management and study of marine mammals in the NAMMCO area (the Exclusive Economic Zones of NAMMCO member states).

Map of Exclusive Economic Zones of NAMMCO Member StatesExclusive Economic Zones of NAMMCO Member States © Nikolas Sellheim, 2021; A high resolution version can be found under ‘Maps’ (here

While on a European level also the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention) lists Faroese whales on its Appendix II and therefore protects them Europe-wide while Denmark is party to it, the autonomy given to the Faroese government by Denmark kicks in once again: As Russell Fielding has shown (here, p. 150), in light of the Home Rule Act, Danish authorities do not have any legal competence to order the Faroese government to stop whaling.

While the number of 1,400 dolphins sounds extreme, from a conservation perspective the killing was, first, legal and, second, appears not to be a problem for the population status of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. In 2016, Fernández et al. have estimated the population to range between 100,775 to 146,363 (here). This would correspond to approximately 1,39% and 0,96% respectively if the numbers were still the same today. Whether or not this is an acceptable percentage is impossible for me as a non-biologist to determine, but it does sound like a rather large number. Information provided by ASCOBANS numbers the species at around 40,000 in the Western North Atlantic and 12,000 in the ASCOBANS area (here). This would be an even higher percentage, making the recent whale drive a significant impact on the species.

Government response

The dolphin drive that took place on 12 September 2021 and which sparked international outcry is to be evaluated, as the Faroese government announced on 16 September. In the statement, the government makes clear that in light of the sheer size of the pod – three times larger than the second largest pod recorded – the drove led to several difficulties once they had reached the bay. This made the recent drive extraordinary. Especially in this context the government aims to investigate issues related to the number of animals taken and the killing methods applied.

After all, based on available catch data, over the last 20 years, the annual catch of Atlantic white-sided dolphins was at around 211 animals per year (though fluctuating between 0-733), which was obviously far less than the drive of 12 September with more than 1,400 dolphins killed.

Interestingly, while the governmental statement aims to justify the pilot whale drive as an integral part of Faroese culture, as legitimate, sustainable and internationally recognised through NAMMCO, it also stresses that the same does not apply to dolphin drives. The statement says:

“Atlantic white-sided dolphin hunts have not been a part of Faroese tradition to the same degree and do not have the same cultural legitimacy.”

What this means in practice remains to be seen. In regard to the sustainable utilisation of marine resources, which the Faroes have committed to, especially in light of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and of these SDG14, the drive of 1,400 dolphins, irrespective of age or sex, remains questionable. A cultural and ecological evaluation appears therefore necessary. Yet, an evaluation is not enough, but must be followed by clear rules in case such a large pod is encountered again.

Final thoughts

Whether or not the Faroese have a right to exercise their centuries-old tradition is a very individual question. To call for boycotts of the Faroe Islands cannot be the solution though. After all, also in the Faroes, there is significant opposition towards the whale drive. Indeed, killing is always ugly, but one should ask, based which principles and moral underpinnings killing of animals can be justified (or not). Is it animal welfare, conservation, or the inherent right of the Faroese to use the resources that are there (local, for that matter) that determine whether or not one is opposed to or in favour of this practice? These are more legal and science-based questions that one can in fact find answers to.

Another set of questions deals with the moral dimensions of whaling: Are you opposed because dolphins are social, intelligent, cultural animals? Are you in favour because the whale drive has been an integral part of Faroese culture for centuries? Either way, does this mean that it is only legitimate to kill stupid, uncultured animals? And is every cultural tradition worth preserving?

Dr Nikolas Sellheim is a Fellow at Polar Research and Policy Initiative, specialising in international marine mammal law and Arctic socio-legal studies. At present, he is also a postdoctoral visiting researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) at the University of Helsinki. His current research deals with the role of local communities in international conservation law for which he analyses five multilateral environmental agreements and the normative role of ‘the local’ therein. His particular interest lies on whaling communities in the Arctic and Japan. Nikolas holds a PhD in law from the University of Lapland (2016). In his doctoral dissertation, he focused on the EU regime on trade in seal products, for which he conducted fieldwork in the Newfoundland sealing industry. Nikolas has extensively published on the seal hunt and is the author of The Seal Hunt. Cultures Economies and Legal Regimes (Brill Nijhoff, 2018). His Arctic research interests further lie on the way the Arctic is perceived and narrated, and Arctic social sciences in general. Nikolas is also co-Editor-in-Chief of Polar Record, the journal of the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK.
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