Science & Environment

Anti-whaling NGOs warn of 'contaminated' whale meat

Pilot whale hunt in the Faroe Islands
Image caption Pilot whale hunting in the Faroe Islands has been going on for generations

Environmental and animal-welfare groups are urging the International Whaling Commission (IWC) to persuade the World Health Organization (WHO) to act over fears about eating whale meat.

The coalition of organisations wants the WHO to issue guidelines amid fears about the safety of the meat.

The groups say whale meat is highly contaminated with mercury and should not be eaten.

But whaling nations say they already have health guidelines in place.

For the past weeks, anti-whaling activists have been drafting a letter aimed at persuading governments to act, in particular, trying to draw attention to the issue of consuming meat of smaller whales and dolphins, known as small cetaceans.

They say dangerously high levels of mercury accumulate up the food chain.

Small cetaceans, like tooth whales and pilot whales, are near the top of it and therefore a lot more toxic compounds tend to accumulate in these mammals' tissues than in smaller inhabitants of the marine world, warn the NGOs.

Currently, the WHO does not have any guidelines regarding the consumption of whale meat, but its website does list mercury as one of the top 10 chemicals of major public health concern.

The groups are hoping that their efforts will prompt the WHO to issue such advice in the near future.

Risks and benefits

But the government of one of the nations that consumes a lot of small cetaceans' meat and blubber, the Faroe Islands in the North-East Atlantic, a self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark, says that the people have been advised on the maximum amount deemed safe for the health - no more than one-to-two meals per month.

"It's quite wrong to use the term 'health hazard'," Kate Sanderson, director of the department of oceans and environment of Faroes' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told BBC News.

Image caption Only a fraction of all whales are protected by the IWC whaling ban

"It's true that pilot whales have very high levels of mercury in the meat and PCBs in the blubber and in 1998, the relevant health authorities at the Faroes issued a safety recommendation advising people on how much it was safe to eat. And people have taken that advice on board."

She also said that eating whale meat and blubber presented numerous, well-documented, benefits for humans.

But conservationists believe that harmful effects of mercury outweigh all the benefits.

They also hope that if the WHO manages to raise people's interest about possible health risks of whale meat, further goals of limiting the hunt of small cetaceans may be achieved.

The current IWC whaling moratorium covers only some 10 whale species - a relatively small fraction of the total number of about 80 species in the whale family.

Hunting to extinction?

"The IWC ban on commercial whaling of larger species does not extend to small hunted species like pilot whales and dolphins, which are being hunted in huge numbers," Andy Ottaway of the Campaign Whale, a UK-based NGO, told BBC News.

He said that if the practice continued, it was possible to hunt small cetaceans to extinction.

Image caption Faroe Islands are known for their natural beauty

"A lot of hunting of smaller whales and dolphins is seen by those countries that conduct the whaling as outside the jurisdiction of the convention, which is a total nonsense.

"In some circumstances, they are being hunted in greater numbers because of the whaling ban for larger species," he said.

He explained that his organisation, along with several other groups, has already received support regarding the public health risks issue from 12 governments.

They are hoping to get others to back the efforts to limit the consumption of small whales and thus limit the hunts.

Probably the biggest annual hunt of small cetaceans takes place off the coast of Japan, which has received world-wide attention after the airing of the 2009 Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove.

In it, the film-makers show how entire social units of some 20,000 to 25,000 pilot whales and dolphins are annually lured into shallow waters and then killed, turning the sea bright red.

The whale drive in the Faroe Islands has also recently been in the spotlight because of gruesome photos, circulated on the internet by anti-whaling campaigners.

The images show pilot whales, among them females with cut-out foetuses, lying on a blood-soaked shore.

This summer's annual hunt at the Faroes ended with the death of almost 700 animals.

But the nation's authorities argue that the way of killing the whales by forcing them with motor boats to swim towards the shore and then killing them with knives is strictly regulated and monitored by local veterinarians.

Islanders cut the whales' spinal cord with a knife, thus also severing the major blood supply to the brain and "ensuring both the loss of consciousness and death within seconds".

Economic value

Ms Sanderson said the current estimated population of pilot whales in the North Atlantic was about 700,000, and even if up to 3,000 animals were killed annually, it would be within a sustainable limit.

She also said that the hunt was important to satisfy the local population's food needs.

Image caption Whaling has been going on for centuries

"If we don't have the whale meat and the blubber, what do we eat instead? We don't have meat production as such in the Faroes other than sheep and a limited amount of cattle that is kept mostly for milk. The sheep population is certainly not enough to serve the meat needs.

"Pilot whales represent not only the traditional part of the diet that people value very much, but also something that's free. It doesn't have to be paid for as an import.

"So it has that economic value as well because you would have to look at what would be the cost of replacing it with imported meat."

But animal activists call the tradition, which goes back several centuries, cruel and the killings unnecessary.

"The Faroes is a fairly wealthy country, and the tradition, if that's what they want to call it, seems to be continuing just for tradition's sake, rather than for any need for whale products," said Mr Ottaway.

"It seems that [this year] they killed so many animals in quick succession, that they can't possibly utilise all the products," he added.

But Ms Sanderson said that there was no doubt all the whales would be eaten.


Mark Simmonds of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society told BBC News that besides meat consumption being a threat to people's health, killing small whales with the methods used and in such proximity of the UK coast was "simply unacceptable" for many Europeans.

He added that the Faroes were probably able to continue with the practice mostly because they were not part of the EU, even though Denmark was.

Image caption Whale meat is sold in many countries

"But still, the Faroe Islands are only about 200 miles off the Scottish coast. It's a lovely place and they are certainly seeking ecotourism in a big way, presenting themselves to the world as a very green and attractive place to go to. But that seems to clash somehow with the on-going enthusiasm for whaling."

He said that to address the issue, it was important to understand why the local population kept on with the centuries-old tradition of the whale hunt.

"To so many of us in the countries that are sitting next door it just seems totally unacceptable. It is very clear that this form of hunting is incredibly cruel. There is no way it would be accepted in the British Isles, it would be against the law for conservation and welfare aspects.

"Killing the animals that come to those waters to breed, killing the youngsters and the pregnant mothers - and this all happens within sight of each other. These are intelligent animals, they are fully aware of what's going on around them," he stressed.

Hunting in general

But Ms Sanderson said that killing pilot whales was no worse than slaughtering any other animals, and that the local authorities were always trying to monitor the hunt and "improve the things".

"It's not entirely controlled circumstances, obviously, but if you can ethically accept hunting of wild animals at all, than you have to accept that in some circumstances things don't always go according to plan.

"Red deer in Scotland - are they all shot? Some are shot and wounded and they run off into the forest and it takes hours for them to die.

"That never happens at the whale hunt in the Faroes. They may take a couple of minutes to die, but certainly not hours, like hunted animals in other form of hunting can."

Though the conservationists think it is rather unlikely for the IWC to extend the whaling ban to cover the small cetaceans, many hope that getting people to think about their health will do the trick.

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