An eye-opening new film reveals how the controversial practice of killing whales in the Faroe Islands may come to an end due to dangerous levels of mercury found in the animals’ meat.
Whale has historically been a staple part of the Faroese diet, with the meat served salted or cut into steaks and the blubber sliced up and eaten raw. But despite being warned by medical officers a decade ago that they were ingesting dangerous levels of mercury, the islanders carried on eating whales regardless.
However, a new documentary, The Islands and the Whales, reveals that the islanders are beginning to accept that their practice of eating pilot whales probably can’t continue, the health risks being too acute.
An eye-opening new film reveals how the controversial practice of killing whales in the Faroe Islands may come to an end due to dangerous levels of mercury found in the animals’ meat
Mercury is entering the sea via rainfall, with the chemical pumped into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.
In 2008, an article in the New Scientist told how Faroe chief medical officers Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen deemed whale meat unsafe for human consumption because of high mercury content. They told how mercury poisoning could trigger a range of ailments including fetal neural development, high blood pressure, circulatory problems and possible infertility.
The stark warning didn’t go unnoticed, but it didn’t stop the hunts.
Fast forward 10 years and the message seems to be sinking in.
In the documentary, islanders are shown taking part in a medical study that highlights how eating whale meat contaminated with mercury pushes up levels of the chemical in the body – and what that can do to IQ levels.
One father is told that he has a reading of 16.8 ng/mL, while the normal level of mercury in the blood mercury is usually less than 10 ng/mL.
Luckily his daughters have safe levels of mercury in their blood but the doctor warns of the dangers attached to eating whale meat.
Hunters insert ‘spinal lances’ through the whales’ necks to break their spinal cords
Whale has historically been a staple part of the Faroese diet, with the meat served salted or cut into steaks and the blubber sliced up and eaten raw
But it’s not just whaling that might come to an end on the Faroe Islands, bird hunting, too, may also have to be halted
‘We see development of the brain slow down. About one IQ point less per doubling of mercury,’ he says.
One man in the documentary says he has started eating less whale meat after finding out about the high content of mercury in his body.
Others also say they are starting to cut down.
And one man tells how he has stocked up on it because he ‘doesn’t expect [whaling] to continue much longer’.
But it’s not just whaling that might come to an end on the Faroe Islands, bird hunting, too, may also have to be halted.
The Faroese complement their seafood diet with puffin and fulmar, crops being notoriously difficult to grow on the islands.
But one bird catcher explains in the film how stocks are on the decline due to pollution and ‘all their little stomachs are usually full of plastic’.
The Faroese complement their seafood diet with puffin and fulmar, crops being notoriously difficult to grow on the islands
Whale blubber is a high source of energy and usually eaten raw
He adds: ‘The first time the young fulmar open their bill they get plastic inside.’
The Faroese say the rise in pollution has impacted the seabird population and numbers have dropped dramatically.
As the film continues, it becomes clear that the Faroese culture is under threat.
Non-profit group Sea Shepherd has long campaigned against whaling on the Faroe Islands and last year it released a series of gruesome photos of a whale hunt in action, with the ocean stained red with blood.
One father is told that he has a reading of 16.8 ng/mL, while the normal level of mercury in the blood is less than 10 ng/mL
Last year the non-profit group Sea Shepherd released a series of gruesome photos from a whale hunt on the Faroe Islands
Campaigners described how the ‘barbaric’ practice involved hunters inserting ‘spinal lances’ through the animal’s neck to break its spinal cord.
One volunteer noted: ‘We witnessed whales seemingly bashing their heads against the stones in a frenzy.’
The Faroe Islands government stated that whale meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been a valued part of the Faroes’ national diet and is hunting sustainable.
‘Catches are shared largely without the exchange of money among the participants in a whale drive and residents of the local district where they are landed,’ it said.
‘Each whale provides the communities with several hundred kilos of meat and blubber – meat that otherwise had to be imported from abroad.’
The Islands and the Whales will be in UK cinemas March 29. Visit theislandsandthewhales.com to find out more.