Tórshavn, 26 May 2011
The fate of the first pilot whales to occur this year in the northern islands of the Faroe Island was sealed in advance – not for use as food, as usual - but for satellite tagging.
When a group of around 30 whales was spotted Wednesday morning just south of the island of Viðoy by a boat from Hvannasund, the district administrator responsible for whaling in the area, Karl Heri Johansen, promptly announced his decision to alert scientists and order the local community to refrain from initiating a whale drive. Instead, a few local boats were mobilised to hold the whales literally at bay, while the research team from the Faroese Museum of Natural History made their way from the capital, Tórshavn. The whales were then carefully herded into the shallows, where satellite tags were successfully attached to the dorsal fins of eight of the whales, and the entire group of whales was driven out again.
Head of marine mammal research at the Faroese Museum of Natural History, Bjarni Mikkelsen, welcomed the decision and the opportunity this provided to continue the pilot whale tagging programme in the Faroes. After several years in the planning, satellite transmitters were first successfully attached to four pilot whales in 2000, and again on seven whales in 2004. Also in these cases, schools of whales were driven into a bay, tags attached to selected whales and the entire school driven back out again.
The Museum of Natural History will now be monitoring the movement of the eight whales from daily positions available to the researchers from the ARGOS satellite tracking system. The tracking will provide insight into the daily movements and diving behaviour of the pilot whale. Tracking the animals over several months will highlight the distribution range of these animals in the Northeast Atlantic. This is all vital information for a better understanding of the recruitment area for the pilot whale population that occurs and is harvested in Faroese waters. As such it is also an important aspect in the continued monitoring of the sustainability of the pilot whale hunt. It is hoped that this most recent tagging operation will provide more sustained transmissions of the whales’ movements than previous attempts, which at their longest lasted 133 days. The tags are programmed to last for up to one year.
Bjarni Mikkelsen underlined that the tagging project is highly dependent on the valuable assistance and skills of the local people who have experience from the pilot whale hunt. Their willingness to organise quickly on short notice, and the knowhow needed to hold a group of whales at sea and drive them in the desired direction in an orderly manner are equally crucial factors in successful satellite tagging and an efficient and well-organised whale drive.
There have been two pilot whale drives so far in 2011, both in the bay of Vestmanna on the island of Streymoy, the first in February, when 41 whales were taken, and a second group of 58 whales in April. Faroese regulations forbid the driving and killing of schools of pilot whales in which there are any individual animals tagged with satellite transmitters.
The tagging operation in Hvannasund was observed by three representatives from UK-based animal welfare alliance, “Whalewatch”, who happened to be on a short visit in the Faroes to establish a dialogue with Faroese authorities and gain a better insight into Faroese whaling today.
The chairman of the Faroese Pilot Whalers Association, Ólavur Sjúrðarberg, also witnessed the tagging operation and met with the representatives of “Whalewatch” to answer their questions about the pilot whale hunt.
“We may not agree on all issues related to whaling, but I am sure we can all agree on the value of scientific research”, said Ólavur Sjúrðarberg. “As this latest successful tagging has shown, we have unique opportunities here in the Faroes to contribute to international knowledge about the biology, behaviour, and distribution of a very common species such as the pilot whale.”
The tagged whales can be followed on the website of the Faroese Museum of Natural History, where maps of their movements are being updated regularly: see www.ngs.fo.