Gruesome pictures given to Fox News show the mass slaughter of whales and dolphins in a series of hunts in the waters around the Faroe Islands this summer.
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The pictures were taken by volunteers from the ocean conservation group Sea Shepherd Global posing as tourists on the Faroe Islands, a Danish archipelago halfway between Norway and Iceland.
The group told Fox News that its volunteers participated in “covert land-based patrols” to document the hunts, which are legal in Denmark, over a 10-week period from July to early September this year.
The project’s goal was to expose “the continued barbaric killing of dolphins and pilot whales by the Faroese,” said Sea Shepherd U.K. Director Rob Read in a statement emailed to Fox News. Some 18 volunteers from the U.K. and France took part, he added.
The hunts, or “drives,” date back to the late 16th century. Authorities on the islands allow residents to drive herds of pilot whales into shallow waters, where they are killed using a ‘spinal lance’ that is inserted through the animal’s neck to break its spinal cord.
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Sea Shepherd Global said that its volunteers documented nine separate hunts, which are known as grindadrap in the local Faroese language. The nine hunts accounted for the deaths of 198 Atlantic white-sided dolphins and 436 pilot whales, according to the conservation group.
The Faroe Islands government slammed Sea Shepherd's activities in a statement emailed to Fox News. "Sea Shepherd representatives will go to any lengths to paint a negative picture of the Faroese whale hunt as 'barbaric', 'unnecessary', 'evil' and 'lunacy' describing Faroese as 'sadistic psychopaths', with the aim of inciting anger and outrage against the people of the Faroe Islands," it said. "They have chosen an easy target, as whale drives in the Faroe Islands take place in the open for anyone to watch and document."
The government noted that whale meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been a valued part of the Faroes' national diet. "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."
One Sea Shepherd Global volunteer, whose identity has been withheld by the organization, described the Aug. 29 hunt at the Faroese village of Hvannasund.
“Witnessing a grind first hand was truly an eye-opening experience,” explained the volunteer, in a statement provided to Fox News. “As the pilot whales were driven to the shoreline by the small boats the intensity of the thrashing bodies grew. Hooks were sunk into the blowholes and the whales were dragged onto the shore in a sadistic game of ‘Tug of War.’ We witnessed whales seemingly bashing their heads against the stones in a frenzy.”
Sea Shepherd Global says that 46 long-finned pilot whales were killed in the Aug. 29 Hvannasund hunt.
An unnamed eyewitness also described a hunt at the village of Bour on Aug. 31, where 29 long-finned pilot whales were reportedly killed. “We recorded children attempting to remove the teeth of several whales with nothing more than a pocket knife as well as removing slices of what appeared to be a tumour on one whale,” said the Sea Shepherd volunteer in a statement.
Around 1,700 pilot whales and white-sided dolphins (including the aforementioned hunts) have been caught in the Faroe Islands so far this year, according to the islands' government. "The annual long-term average catch of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands is around 800 whales, with large fluctuations in total catches and the number of individual whale drives from year to year," it added.
Official statistics show that 295 pilot whales were killed last year and 501 were killed in 2015.
Faroese authorities say that whaling on the islands is sustainable. "The long-term annual average catch of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands represents less that 1% of the total estimated stock," said the islands government, in its statement emailed to Fox News. "It has long since been internationally recognised that pilot whale catches in the Faroe Islands are fully sustainable."
The hunts can happen at any time of the year and the long-finned pilot whales are not an endangered species.
The ‘spinal lance’ used to kill the whales was designed by a Faroese veterinarian and ensures that the mammals lose consciousness and die within a few seconds, a spokesman for the Faroe Islands government told Fox News earlier this year. An entire pod of whales is typically killed in less than fifteen minutes, he said.
The islands' government says that the pilot whale population in the eastern North Atlantic is approximately 778,000, of which around 100,000 are around the Faroes.
"Sheep farming, whaling and fowling have enabled the Faroe Islands as an island nation to maintain a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency in food production," said the government, in its statement to Fox News. "In the Faroe Islands it is considered both economic and environmental good sense to make the most of locally available natural resources, and to maintain the knowledge required to use what nature can provide in a harsh oceanic environment."
The Faroes are a self-governing group of islands that is part of Denmark, but are not part of the European Union, where whaling is banned.
Activists have been urging the European Union to take action against Denmark over the Faroe Islands’ whale hunts.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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