Traditional Dolphin hunting practices in the Faroe Islands – Conservation Impacts on White Sided Dolphins

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Over 1400 white sided dolphins killed in Faroe tradition.

Hunting White Sided Dolphins has been a traditional practice in the Faroe Islands since the ninth century[1]. There are two main perspectives to consider in this topic, first of which is the point of view of the Faroe Islands supporters that believe whaling is a sustainable way of gathering food from nature and an important part of their cultural identity. However, animal rights activists have long disagreed, deeming the slaughter cruel and unnecessary[2]. There are numerous factors that play an integral role in the conservation impacts such as the laws regarding hunting practices as well as dietary values of dolphins that make them the main target. These also help explain the long standing tradition in the Faroe Islands and the reasons why Dolphin hunting is normal and beneficial for them[3].

Background Information

History of Faroe Islands


The name Faereyiar (circa 1225) meant "Sheep Islands," which presumably led to the ram as the national symbol. The islands were first settled by Irish monks (circa 700), then colonised by Vikings (circa 800) and Christianised by Norway's king (c. 1000). In 1035, the Faroe Islands became a Norwegian province, and in 1380, they were annexed by Denmark along with the rest of Norway. They were legislatively separated from Norway in 1709, attached to the diocese of Zealand, becoming a Danish royal trade monopoly, stifling economic development.

Pilot whales killed in Faroe Islands in 1994.

The Faroese culture reflects its Nordic roots. It is particularly noticeable in Faroese, which is derived from ancient Norse. Despite the fact that the Danish King outlawed Faroese orthography in schools, churches, and official documents in the 15th century, the archipelago managed to preserve a rich oral tradition, abundant in verbal communication capable of transmitting stories and poems. The inhabitants of the Faroe Islands have preserved their cultural identity, especially in rural areas. This chain dance – the kvæði is a cultural tradition that is still practised and is typically accompanied by ballads.[4]

Cultural Beliefs regarding Hunting Practices

The Faroese regard grindadráp, or pilot whale hunting, as part of their cultural heritage, however the method of killing pilot whales is a type of ritual slaughter performed on fully conscious animals who are aware of their conditions, according to veterinary sciences and biology. Pilot whales are highly social, intelligent, and communicative creatures who exhibit a wide range of social behaviours. As a result, this traditional whaling method should be regarded as a procedure that causes great distress to the animals.[5]

Legislation regarding Dolphin Hunting

The Faroe's hunting rules largely encompass the legislation passed by the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO) that has been providing information to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) since 1995 regarding the hunt of north atlantic cetaceans[6]. Though the IWC has banned dolphin hunting, it does not apply to the Faroe Islands as they are still legally permitted to hunt white-sided dolphins[7] According to the regulations of hunting in Faroe Islands, the hunters may only kill the white-sided dolphins in an approved region, following the methodical slaughter of pilot whales. The law states that there are certain conditions that need to be met during the hunt. At the sighting of the prey, they are to lure the fish to an area where the seabed slopes into the deep water, and is isolated from the islanders. This is done to avoid harm to the locals as the hunters tear the upper layer of the pilot whales while they are still alive[8].

Past Controversies

Dolphin death documented by Sea Shepherd Global in their operation dolphin bycatch campaign.

The “Grindadrap” tradition of the Faroese has been under controversial eyes since the past few years, highlighting the controversial nature of this seasonal slaughter. Many activists have come to stand against it and founded organisations that work to put an end to it. One of which is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society that started their movement when they discovered the killings of pilot whales in Faroe regions[9] where several volunteers found the act “gruesome”. However a Faroese representative addressed the issue and in turn assured that the pilot whale species is unthreatened and therefore whaling should be viewed outside of a biocentric perspective. The same can be said about the white-sided dolphins which is a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Art[10]. As per recent news, the massacre of “1,428 dolphins in one day” incited the government to release a statement that they will adjust the hunting laws accordingly thus acknowledging the current controversy[11]. This legal action is also a response to the actions being taken by other big conservationist organisations apart from Sea Shepherd Global like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Them being, the biggest opposition to dolphin and whale hunting from the perspective of marine life preservation.

Ecological Factor of Hunting White Sided Dolphins

Dietary Value of White Sided Dolphins

High levels of ocean borne pollution such as methyl mercury in the system of the Faroese people was discovered in studies in the 80's. These particular mercury sources come from exposure of pilot whale and dolphin meat. Mercury concentration in cetacean species ranging from 3.3 ug g^-1 to 7.59ug g^-1[12]. This exposure, especially towards children can result in neuropsychological deficits and developmental delays.

Local Impact

The Atlantic white-sided dolphin is one of the largely targeted species. Though the history of cetacean hunting dates back to 1584, we know due to official records by the Faroese Authorities how the numbers of cetacean populations have been reduced in the last 20 years[13]. Since 1989, 4683 white sided dolphins have been hunted, this being an average of 246 per year. This is only a small fraction of the total killing of cetaceans, since it's been 17651 killings in total including the rest of the local whale and dolphin species[14]. Despite the large annual decline in species individuals the government of Faroe does not set any yearly killing quotes for any of the species. The hunting does not only have an impact on the species populations of the faroese islands but also of the health of the inhabitants. Due to high concentrations of mercury in the animals' meat intestines and blubber. In 2008 a warning not to use the whale for human consumption was made by the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Physician of the islands. The mercury in the meat is especially a problem for developing children and can have effects on the nervous and immune  system and specifically the consumption of pilot whales can  lead to Parkinson disease. Despite the warnings the consumption of the cetacean is still being continued[15].

Impact on Faroese Marine Life

Despite recordings of 840 white sided dolphins and pilot whale species killed each year[16], it is suggested that it is a sustainable fishery. In 2013, the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission made the assessment that stated that a sustainable grind a population number of 50-80,000 pilot whales is needed. The current estimation of pilot whale population numbers on the Faroe islands is at over 100.000[17]. This would be an annual loss of 0.1% and be more sustainable than the average British Fishery. Pilot whale hunting in general does have impacts on the rest of marine life. Hunting practices of white sided dolphins do not destroy the seabed habitat and its animal population. Also the hunting technique does not lead to any potentially damaging bycatch as supposed to most open sea fisheries[18]. Though as of recent fishing numbers during the 2021 white dolphin hunts, it is suggested that 1500 White Sided Dolphins were hunted(9). Which is much higher than the annual recommended killing number that is annually under 550 according to the CMA. Which is above the average of the recent years. This might put the future endangerment status into question since at this point they are not categorized as endangered[19].

Global Implications of Dolphin Hunting

What is the problem?

On a global scale, about 100000 cetacean individuals are killed and hunting is a critical threat to their survival. Though it is not just hunting that puts the species through anthropogenic pressure, there is a cumulative impact that consists of bycatch, pollution, ship strikes, toxin exposure and habitat degradation also takes a toll on a possible increase of species[20]. Although, in some areas the exploitation of whales and dolphins is prohibited or regulated, in many counties legislation is inconsistent and poorly enforced. Given that there's a knowledge gap in population data of small cetacean species the impact of all natural and anthropogenic impact is unknown[21]. Though there has been a recorded increase of wild meat which implies an increase of usage of dolphin meat that is used as bait in commercial fisheries. This would result into not only a decrease of dolphin species due do its meat being used but also an instant of overfishing which could put the long term survival of species into question.

How is the problem being dealt with?

Conservation projects around the globe as part of the 'Protecting Whales and Dolphins Initiative'

Although, in lieu of these threats that have been cast over white sided dolphins as well as several other cetaceans, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched the 'Protecting Whales and Dolphins Initiative' in 2020[22]. This initiative aimed to establish marine protected areas and sanctuaries to avoid further threat to marine creatures. The organisation has partnered with several nations such as Canada, Peru, Korea, Australia etc. to take forward individual projects to monitor population rates, habitat loss, climate change and policy changes at local and global scales. The WWF is making changes in whale and dolphin hunting by encouraging fishing practices such as those of the National Bycatch Reduction Strategy (NBCR) that reduce bycatch. As per the NBCR this involves making significant adjustments to fishing gear, additionally the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is also doing research and collecting monitored data of fisheries to realise their objectives and goals[23]. This strategy however does allow for fishermen to hunt fish thus its effects are limited to dolphins and whales. With this, the WWF is also working with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to implement policies that restrict and/or ban whale and dolphin hunting[24].


The recent slaughter of the white sided dolphins in the Faroe Islands has proven to be very controversial amongst conversationalists. Its overt violent nature as well as the size has caught the attention of many critics who have gone further to explain why this tradition is inexcusable. However, from the perspective of the locals in the Faroe Islands, this has been a long standing tradition that has integrated as part of their cultural identity. With that, it acts as sustenance for the winter season in the Islands, thus having an ecological reason for the killings. As for the impact of this tradition, the large numbers have surely affected dolphin populations and have posed a threat to their survival, though there is no clear evidence of this disrupting marine life or the food chain. Thus, thus tradition of dolphin hunting may or not continue in the Faroe Islands given future legislative decisions such as possible bans or restrictions that could in turn stop it altogether.


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  12. Bowles, David. "An overview of the concentrations and effects of metals in cetacean species". line feed character in |title= at position 49 (help)
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