Small Cetacean Hunts

Small cetacean hunts - Photo by Mike Prince

Small whales, dolphins and porpoises are hunted for commercial and subsistence purposes across the globe. They are killed for human consumption, fisheries bait, and to reduce the perceived competition for fish or damage to fishing nets. Some are also captured alive to supply the aquarium industry, with frequent overlap between those involved in the killing and the live capture.

Small cetaceans also face indirect threats which may impact them cumulatively or synergistically. Such threats include bycatch (accidental capture in fishing gear), chemical and noise pollution, ship strikes, habitat destruction, over-fishing of prey species, and climate change—which can impact prey, breeding and feeding habitats and migration routes.

Many populations of small cetaceans are categorized as vulnerable or endangered. Some, like the vaquita of the Gulf of California, are critically endangered. Others have gone extinct, such as the baiji (Yangtze River dolphin)—declared extinct within the past decade. Compounding the problems faced by some species is the lack of good scientific data on their status, thus diminishing the prospects for successful recovery efforts.

While the largest slaughter of small cetaceans in the world is conducted in Japan, they are also hunted in the Faroe Islands, Solomon Islands, Greenland, Russia, Indonesia, Peru, Canada and elsewhere.

AWI recognizes that certain indigenous communities hunt small cetaceans for subsistence purposes. While we have concerns over the welfare implications of these hunts, we find those conducted for commercial gain to be particularly egregious. Although it is common for a country to have emotional attachments to various traditions considered cruel or unnecessary by outside standards, we believe that it is important to distinguish between traditions that are ethical, sustainable, and humane given the context of the modern world from those that are cruel, potentially unsustainable, and, in some cases, pose a public health hazard to unwitting humans.

Small Cetacean Hunts in the Faroe Islands

Situated between Scotland and Iceland in the North Atlantic Ocean, the Faroe Islands are a self-governing territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. Opportunistic whaling on pilot whales, Risso’s dolphins, and sometimes other species has taken place in the Faroe Islands for centuries, with the meat from the hunts being distributed among the islands’ inhabitants.

When a pod of whales—sometimes numbering over 100 individuals or more—is spotted, it is driven ashore using boats. Once close to shore, the animals are secured by steel hooks driven into the body or by inserting a round-ended hook or “gaff” into the sensitive blow hole. The animals are then hauled to land by ropes attached to the hooks. Once beached, they are finally killed with knives, which slice through the spinal cord and carotid artery.

The hunting and killing of pilot whales and other small cetaceans in the Faroe Islands once satisfied a subsistence need. Today the Faroe Islanders enjoy a modern, developed society, whose standard of living equates to that of other Northern European societies.

Similar to the dolphin drive hunt meat consumed in Japan, pilot whales have been found to be highly contaminated in recent years with pollutants. Danish and Faroese scientists have warned that consuming pilot whale meat and blubber has detrimental effects on the development of fetal nervous and immune systems, and increases the risk of Parkinson's disease, hypertension and arteriosclerosis of the carotid arteries in adults.

In August 2008, the Faroe Islands' Chief Medical Officer and Chief Physician wrote an open letter to the Government stating that “pilot whales today contain contaminants to a degree that neither meat nor blubber would comply with current limits for acceptable concentrations of toxic contaminants...” They further stated, “[I]t is recommended that pilot whale is no longer used for human consumption.”

The Government of the Faroe Islands has failed to adopt this recommendation and the hunts continue. An average of 666 pilot whales, 156 Atlantic white-sided dolphins and four bottlenose whales were killed annually between 2016 and 2020. Hunters took a significantly larger number of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in 2021, with more than 1,400 killed in a single grind. In response to global, and some domestic, criticism, the Faroese Government vowed to look “closely at the dolphin hunts, and what part they should play in Faroese society” and start an evaluation of regulations on the catching of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.”1

Small Cetacean Hunts in Japan

In Japan, up to 20,000 dolphins, porpoises and small whales are hunted every year in hand harpoon hunts, drive hunts, and small-type whaling operations using bow-mounted harpoons. Most are killed in the hand hunts, of which the Dall’s porpoise hunt is the most documented. Mothers with calves are targeted as they are easier to catch. Once the mother is dispatched, the calves are left to die. The mothers are hunted using spears thrown into the flesh. Once maimed, they have floats attached to them and are left to bleed to death. Sometimes they are killed via electrocution.

Approximately 1,000 animals are targeted every year in drive hunts, the most infamous of which takes place in the town of Taiji from September to March. Pods of dolphins are driven to shore with noise. Once the dolphins are enclosed in a bay, a net is thrown across its mouth, trapping the dolphins. The net is then drawn tighter and tighter until the animals are thrashing around in a confused panic. Meanwhile, fishermen in small boats drive them closer and closer to the shore. Many animals drown and some die from the stress of the ordeal.

Once captured, some animals—usually unblemished females—are selected for sale to aquariums and the rest are often slaughtered. A dead dolphin is worth a few hundred dollars but a live one can sell for over a hundred times that, making the dolphin hunts very lucrative. In recent times, after live ones have been chosen, some of the animals initially trapped have been freed—to an unknown fate given the stress and potential for injury and permanent separation from family. Those earmarked for killing are dispatched with knives and spears. In an effort to thwart negative publicity and to conceal the barbarity of the drive hunts, the killing process is hidden from public view by tarpaulin sheeting and roads are closed off.

The meat that is sold has been found to contain dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins such as PCBs, presenting a public health hazard. Little is known about the population status of the animals being hunted, and the drive hunts may be causing serial depletions of population and/or species.

Baird’s beaked whales are also hunted for their meat via small-type whaling operations. Once spotted from a whaling vessel, a harpoon (sometimes a non-exploding “cold” harpoon, banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1980) is fired toward the animal. Once struck, a line from the harpoon to the boat ensures the animal cannot escape and it is hauled closer to the boat, after which a secondary method is used to kill the animal if still alive at that point.

Small Cetacean Hunts in Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands is a country comprising about one thousands islands, located in the Pacific Ocean to the east of Papua New Guinea. Dolphins and other small cetaceans have been traditionally hunted by some communities there, who prize the teeth as currency. (Bottlenose dolphin teeth, however, were not particularly sought by the islanders.)

In the early 2000s, Western interests visited the Islands and recognized the economic potential from using the hunts to capture live bottlenose dolphins for sale to aquariums. Fishermen were paid to capture live Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops aduncus) and, over time, a capture industry developed—with exports of almost 100 animals over a six year period to Mexico (in 2003), United Arab Emirates (2007), the Philippines (2008 and 2009) and Malaysia (2010). Sales of live dolphins to other countries may have taken place, as well, with rumored exports to Thailand, Panama, Hong Kong, and most recently China publicized in Solomon Islands media.

While the principal Western dolphin broker reportedly quit the business in 2010, two other capture enterprises remain and dolphins continue to be captured.

The capture process in Solomon Islands varies and to a large extent is opportunistic—sometimes nets are involved and sometimes dolphins are driven to shore through cooperation between fishermen. In all cases, dolphins suffer stress from the chase, capture, handling, confinement and transportation from point of capture, to temporary pens, and ultimately to facilities thousands of miles away.

The transportation of wild animals across oceans causes immense stress, and death is not an unusual fate for the dolphins even prior to the stress of life-long captivity. From the 2003 sale to Mexico, one of the 28 dolphins died just days after arriving, and today less than half remain alive. Four of the 28 animals shipped in 2007 to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, are thought to have died, as they have been replaced with animals from the Taiji drive hunts.

Aside from the cruelty of the capture and confinement of dolphins, the sustainability of Solomon Islands hunts, like those of Japan and the Faroe Islands, is of grave concern.

Only very limited population studies have been undertaken on cetaceans in the Solomon Islands region, and leading scientific experts agree that the sparse data available suggests that dolphin captures are grossly unsustainable. The Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission has expressed “its concern at ongoing and past levels of [the dolphin genus] Tursiops in the Solomon Islands, noting that permitted levels of catch for export are not supported by the scientific evidence.” In April 2009, the trade was placed under Significant Review by the CITES Animals Committee—an extreme measure that is only imposed when trade is suspected to be unsustainable.

In September, newspaper reports stated that the government of Solomon Islands plans to ban live dolphin captures and exports in 2012.