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Can the International Whaling Commission Help Bring an End to the Grind?

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

Members of the Stop the Grind Coalition went to Portoroz, Slovenia earlier this month for the 68th International Whaling Commission (IWC) conference to better understand the organization’s stance on small cetacean conservation such as the protection of pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins killed in the Faroe Islands.

Established in 1946 to implement the "International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling", the IWC has taken a more concrete conservation role since it implemented the worldwide ban on commercial hunts of the “great whale” species in 1986.

But can the IWC help the global effort to protect smaller cetaceans such as the pilot whale and other dolphins which are deliberately killed in the Faroe Islands’ grind hunts? Our goal was to learn firsthand how the IWC operates, to understand the important work of the Scientific and Conservation Committees, and to learn about the collaborative efforts of like-minded NGOs fighting for whales and small cetaceans.

Speaking Out Against the Slaughters in the Faroe Islands

By all accounts it started out as an unusually quiet IWC convention. Security had prepared for over one hundred protesters and only got three. Only five accredited journalists bothered to attend, and one of those was Micah Garen, a filmmaker shooting footage for an episode about whales in the documentary series “How to Survive the Climate Apocalypse” who had filmed with Sea Shepherd UK in Iceland on Operation Northern Exposure this summer.

Delegates and NGOs began by commending the important work of the Scientific Committee, and called on politicians to take actions based on their recommendations. The Faroe Islands were not forgotten.

The UK delegation, headed by Commissioner James Smith of DEFRA, spoke out opposing ‘the grind’:

“We remain concerned by small cetacean hunts in the Faroe Islands noting the advice of the Scientific Committee that ‘no small cetacean removals should be authorized until a full assessment of the status of this dolphin population has been undertaken.’ In both cases, we note the Scientific Committee’s concern and recommendation that the secretariat write a letter to convey these concerns to the relevant authorities”.

After the September 12, 2021 grind killing of 1428 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, over 100,000 UK citizens signed a petition for the topic to be debated in the UK Parliament, specifically asking for the government to halt trade with the Faroe Islands until they stop killing dolphins.

Sandra Altherr of Pro Wildlife spoke against the grind on behalf of 21 NGOs present at the IWC:

“With regard to the Faroe Islands, we also note the public statement to the IWC, by the European Union and its member states that are parties to the IWC, condemning the hunt of more than 1420 white-sided dolphins in Sept 2021, and calling upon the Faroese government to immediately stop the outdated practice of whaling and dolphin hunt. A reduction to a quota of 500 dolphins does not solve the problem. We further wish to express our serious concerns regarding the annual intentional take of approximately 100k small cetaceans worldwide. Typically, these are unsustainable, unregulated, or even illegal hunts, fully documented, and the impact of these hunts on populations is unknown. However, several species are now listed as threatened as a direct result of hunting activities. Several recent studies even report an increase of these hunts. We therefore call on contracting governments to develop national legislature prohibiting the commercial or other direct takes of small cetaceans, and to implement and enforce existing laws prohibiting or restricting the directed hunting of small cetaceans. Such legislation, among other benefits to the species, will allow these populations to rebuild and to better fulfill their ecological role in the marine or freshwater ecosystem.”

The Response of the Danish Delegation

Denmark’s IWC Commissioner Lars Thostrup denied Denmark’s responsibility for the whaling activities of the Faroe Islands, a protectorate under the Kingdom of Denmark in an underwhelming and habitual statement:

“Management of natural resources is one of the many policy areas being managed separately by the Faroes…this is the case when it comes to whaling.”

He then made a thinly-veiled insult of the IWC’s Scientific Committee’s credentials:

“Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands all acknowledge IWC’s important role in the management of large whales. We also take note that the IWC does not have competence in managing the hunting and catching of small cetaceans”

A curious accusation based on the growing evidence showing the Faroese aren’t very competent at it either, and their government doesn’t deny completely bungling the slaughter of 1428 dolphins on the 12th September 2021 (in the same year the Faroese also killed 667 long-finned pilot whales which are the second largest dolphin species).

Questionable Quota

The Faroese Communications Advisor Páll Nolsøe, part of the Danish delegation, tried to characterize that particular hunt as a one-off event:

“First let me take the opportunity on behalf of the government of the Faroe Islands to emphasize that the mentioned catch of 1423* white-sided dolphins at Skálabotnur on the 12th of September 2021 was an exceptional incident and this was by far the largest catch of white-sided dolphins in the history of the Faroe Islands. The Faroese government has acknowledged that aspects of that catch were not satisfactory, in particular to the unusually large number of dolphins killed. This made procedures difficult to manage, and it’s unlikely to be a sustainable level of catch on a long-term annual basis.
To avoid any further unmanageable catches such as that which occurred on September 12th 2021, the Faroese government has implemented an annual catch limit of 500 white sided dolphins. The latest scientific estimate for whales and dolphins put the stock at around 80k in the seas around the Faroe Islands. Based on this an annual catch of 525 white-sided dolphins would be well within the sustainable limit. Since the turn of the century the annual catch of the Faroe Islands has been 260 on average. Nevertheless the Faroe Islands has requested the scientific committee of NAMMCO to provide an update and a comprehensive advice on sustainable catches for white-sided dolphins. This advice is expected to be available at the latest by 2024, after which the government will review the provisional annual limit of 500.”

This shows that, in response to public outrage over the number and way in which these dolphins were slaughtered, the Faroese have decided to establish a quota that is MORE THAN DOUBLE what they kill on average each year over the last 4 decades.

*The actual number of Atlantic white-sided dolphins killed on the 12th September 2021 was 1428 as verified by Sea Shepherd crew and as reported by the grind foreman (not counting unborn calves).

Whales as “Sustainable Aquatic Meat”?

Páll Nolsøe then went on to use the “sustainability” buzzword:

“The Faroe Islands have a strong commitment to UN Sustainable Development Goal #14 to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development. The government of the Faroe Islands recognizes the right and responsibility of the Faroese people to utilize the resources of the sea sustainably. The Faroe Islands have been a member country of NAMMCO since it was founded in 1992. NAMMCO provides its pro-whaling members with advice and recommendations on conservation management and sustainable use of marine mammals in the North Atlantic Sea.”

There’s Nothing Sustainable about Eating Whale or Dolphin Meat

And yet, as the IWC Scientific Committee and others point out, you can’t know if it’s sustainable when there are no recent surveys, especially taking into account all the growing challenges to small cetaceans that threaten populations. NAMMCO only requires a report on hunts every ten years, its own website states: “Atlantic white-sided dolphins are abundant throughout their range, although there are few surveys available to provide population estimates.” How can the hunting of any wild species on this planet be considered sustainable when wildlife populations worldwide have plunged by an average of 69% in nearly 50 years, according to a leading scientific assessment published in the 2022 Living Planet Report.

Pilot whales have one of the longest birth intervals of all cetaceans, once every three to five years. As WWF International’s IWC observer Colman O’Criodain points out:

“Whales, by their basic biological characteristics, as long lived, slow maturing and slow breeding mammals, cannot be considered to be a sustainable food resource for a growing human population under SDG2. Neither can the exploitation of whales be seen as compatible with SDG14 to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, especially as many cetacean populations are already severely depleted and face a myriad of other threats which humankind has not yet managed to mitigate.”

This is also true for pilot whales and other dolphins killed in the Faroes.

Páll Nolsøe continues:

“In the Faroe Islands pilot whales are one of the few resources of meat that does not have to be imported from afar. The meat from each whale drive provides valuable food with a low carbon footprint which is distributed for free to the local communities where the whale drive takes place. In the Faroe Islands we consider it both economically and environmentally responsible to make the most use of local natural resources including whales and obtained the knowledge required to make use of what nature provides in the harsh oceanic environment.”

The Faroese People Aren’t Dependant on Pilot Whale Meat

They say “one of the few” sources of meat, but it is not a staple as even the Faroes admit to only eating the meat once or twice a month at most (and not all Faroese eat pilot whale or dolphin). The Faroese Government’s own Chief Scientific Officer has warned for years that pilot whale meat is not safe for human consumption - so it should not even be considered a food resource.

Sea Shepherd footage has documented the amount of pilot whale meat thrown away, and meat traded openly, sold to local supermarkets and also sold to restaurants for sale to tourists - all without any health warnings. It should be emphasised that, although ‘the grind’ is part of Faroese history (as similar hunts were for many coastal communities in the North Atlantic region in history), the Faroese community has not depended on pilot whale and other dolphin meat for food since at least the 1950’s. As they said themselves at the NAMMCO conference earlier this year which Sea Shepherd UK sent covert observers: “Are the Faroese people going to starve without whale meat? No.”

The Faroese do not consider themselves to be “subsistence” dolphin hunters. It can be called “tradition”, but any hunting that isn’t for survival is hunting for sport.

These periodically recurring ‘whatabout’ arguments of food security are likely to surface again - but the WWF’s Colman O’Criodain states on behalf of 15 other NGOs, this is a dead end:

“It is of critical importance that the global crisis due to overfishing and the depletion of fish stocks as a result of overfishing, including industrialized fishing by distant water fleets and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which is the primary threat to food security of coastal communities, are tackled within the competent organizations, through national, regional and international cooperation.
We hope that IWC Contracting Governments will recognize that exploiting whales in response to food security concerns will do nothing to address the root causes of the food security threat many countries face. Conversely, creating a dependency on an unsustainable food source will only exacerbate the problems that communities in food-insecure regions face and is a contradiction to the true meaning of sustainable development which seeks to meet the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations.”

The Work of the IWC’s Scientific and Conservation Committees

While the most attention is focused on preserving the moratorium to protect great whale species, the IWC also works to help protect small cetaceans, particularly through the Scientific Committee and the Conservation Committee. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a longtime observer NGO at the IWC:

“Both committees cover a vast range of issues, including climate change, marine debris, ship strikes, bycatch, underwater noise and chemical pollution. These are just some of the modern day threats faced by the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises and the IWC, through the development of Conservation Management Plans (CMPs) and collaborative programs such as the Bycatch Mitigation Initiative, is taking major steps to address them.”

Two of the five current CMPs are dedicated to dolphins, specifically the Franciscana dolphin (the first CMP for a small cetacean species) and the Amazon River Dolphin (the first for a freshwater cetacean). While this is promising for other small cetaceans like pilot whales, it would be preferable to start protecting more small cetacean species *before* they reach critically endangered status.

“The Scientific Committee is, in our view, the best part of the IWC,” said Switzerland’s delegate Bruno Mainini. “There you have people working, doing, acting…something that is missed in the rest of the IWC.”

What’s Next?

The Stop the Grind Coalition is committed to ending the slaughter of pilot whales and other dolphins in the Faroe Islands no matter how long it takes. We will continue to explore any and all strategies for achieving this outcome, including diplomatic channels such as the IWC convention.

Firm appeals to the Danish and Faroese governments to end the grind have not resulted in any action, but clearly the need to create a quota for Atlantic white-sided dolphin hunts and a population survey in response to the public outcry over the September 2021 dolphin massacre proves that international attention DOES have impact. Our coalition gained 2,000 new members on the anniversary of the September 12th grind, which has been declared World Dolphin Day in memory of the 1428 dolphins slaughtered that day. We look forward to collaborating with other NGOs also working for the protection of small cetaceans, whether at IWC69, or wherever we feel our participation and experience can best help bring an end to the grind.

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