Whales & the marine environment

The seas around the Faroese are among the cleanest in the world. Due to their position at the top of the marine food chain, pilot whales are known to accumulate high levels of contaminants such as mercury (in the meat and organs) and organochlorines (in the blubber). These contaminants derive mainly from heavy industries and industrialised agricultural processes in large urbanised countries far from the waters around the Faroes. This is a matter of considerable concern to the Faroes, which are so dependent on the sea and its resources for their livelihood. Elimination of pollutants at their source should be the major focus of concerted action today by governments, industries and serious environmental organisations everywhere.

 

Contaminants and human health

 

The possible long-term human health effects of contaminant levels in the Faroese diet are being closely monitored. Since the late 1970s, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority  has advised against the consumption of pilot whale liver and kidney due to high mercury concentrations in these organs.

 

Over the past two decades, extensive international research has focussed on the health effects of contaminants from whale meat and blubber in the diet of Faroe Islanders. In 1998, public health, food and environmental authorities in the Faroes issued comprehensive, precautionary recommendations for safe limits for the consumption of pilot whale meat and blubber.

 
In response to more recent research and based on internationally applied standards for precautionary limits,  the Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority issued revised recommendations in June 2011. These advise that consumption should be limited to one meal of whale meat and blubber per month. Women of child-bearing age are advised, as they have been since 1998, not to consume blubber at all until they have had their children and are no longer breast-feeding, and to refrain from eating whalemeat three months prior to, and during, pregnancy and while breast feeding. These limits are intended to safeguard against the risks associated with heavy metals and PCBs, while acknowledging the nutritional benefits of whale meat and blubber, which are rich in poly-unsaturated fats and essential vitamins and minerals.

 

Contaminant loads in pilot whales are an obvious source of concern. Health risks must be balanced against the documented health benefits of a marine-based diet rich in polyunsaturated fats and lean, protein-rich meat. The environmental and health effects of substituting this local natural resource in the Faroese diet with industrially produced farmed foods imported from other countries have not been assessed.

 
On-going environmental monitoring 
 
Levels of contaminants in pilot whales and other local foods in the Faroes, including sea birds, are subject to continuous monitoring, carried out by the Environment Agency. The focus of the monitoring of pilot whale muscle and blubber is to elucidate possible changes in concentrations over time in the exposure of the human population utilizing pilot whale blubber and meat for food. The focus of the monitoring of heavy metals in kidney and liver tissues is to follow the possible risk to the pilot whale imposed by elevated tissue metal concentrations.
 
Monitoring of contaminant loads in pilot whales caught in the Faroes over the past 30 years has so far shown that there have been no significant increases in mercury or PCBs levels. Levels of DDT in the blubber have in fact decreased, in line with effective limitations on its use worldwide.  Researchers participating in the comprehensive international study of pilot whales conducted from 1986 to 1988 also examined contaminant loads. These studies found no indication of negative effects of contaminants on the productivity of pilot whales.
 
Since 2008, the monitoring data established in the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP) that has been provided by the Environment Agency in the Faroes has been available online at www.envofar.fo. ENVOFAR is a cooperation of Faroese institutions that work actively to describe and study the environment in the AMAP and CAFF working groups under the Arctic Council.