The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission


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Hunting and Utilisation


Pilot whales have a long history of utilisation by humans in the North Atlantic. In the 20th century, they have been harvested in Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, western Ireland, Shetland and Orkney Islands and Norway, the eastern USA and Newfoundland in Canada (Mitchell 1975, Nelson and Lien 1996). They continue to be harvested in the Faroe Islands and Greenland. In most places, pilot whaling was conducted as drive fisheries. Meat and blubber were used for human consumption.


Pilot whales are taken in southwest Greenland on an opportunistic basis. They are usually hunted from small boats using rifles and hand harpoons. Recent catches have ranged between 0 and 365 animals (Table below).

Faroe Islands

Drive fisheries for pilot whales in the Faroe Islands—known in Faroese as grindadráp—date back to the Norse settlement in the 9th century with written descriptions from as early as 1632 (Sanderson 1992). It represents "a distinctive cultural characteristic for the Faroe Islands" (Joensen 1976) and “an established symbol of Faroese national identity” (Sanderson 1992). In addition to the objects of material culture it has produced, the grindadráp has inspired authors, poets and songwriters in the Faroe Islands for centuries (e.g. Sanderson 1992).


grindadrap Mikines 2

Grindadráp, S. Joensen-Mikines 1959. Listasavn (Museum of Art), Tórshavn, Faroe islands

Catch statistics exist since 1584 and are unbroken from 1709 to today. They show and annual average catch of 850 pilot whales (range 0-4,480) with a cyclic variation correlated with North Atlantic climatic variations and oceanic events (Hoydal and Lastein 1993, Bloch and Lastein 1995. Block 1998, Jákupsstovu 2002, Hátún et al. 2009, Hátún and Gaard 2010).

From 1709 to 1999, a total of 246,434 pilot whales have been caught in 1,766 pods. There have been an average of 6.1 grinds (whale drives) per year in that period, and grind size has ranged from 1 to 1200 whales, with a mean of 139.5 whales per grind (Zachariassen 1993, Bloch 1994). Since 2000, the pilot whale catch at the Faroes has ranged between 0 and 1107, with a yearly average for the period 2000–2013 of 671 animals (Table below).

In the Faroes, harvesting of pilot whales has been an important source of food for the inhabitants since the islands were colonized (e.g. Williamson 1970). Pilot whales are taken in an organised drive hunt, or grind. When whales are sighted, local small fishing vessels co-operate to drive the whales into designated beaches. Once ashore, they are killed by severing the neck arteries and veins using a specialized knife. The catch is then evaluated by designated officials who measure and mark the whales. The catch is divided into shares and distributed free of charge following specified rules to hunt participants and residents in the district. Larger catches are distributed more widely (e.g. Bloch et al. 1990, Bloch 2007, Ministry of Fisheries).

USA and Canada

An important pilot whale drive fishery was active at Cape Cod from the mid-1700s to the 1920s. Durng the late 1800s the mean annual catch was in the order of 2–3,000 animals. A drive fishery was also active off the shores of Virginia and North Caroline (Mitchell 1975 a,b).

Newfoundland's drive fishery was active from 1947 to 1964 and at its highest in 1956, with catches reaching almost 10,000 animals (Sergeant 1962, Mitchell 1975a). It declined shortly after and is now defunct.



Pilot whale meat is high in protein (higher than beef) and low in fat. Because a whale's fat is contained in the layer of blubber beneath the skin, and the muscle is high in myoglobin, the meat has a dark red colour (e.g. Bloch 2007).

Faroe Islands

Both the meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been—and continue to be—a valued part of the 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 (e.g. Bloch 2007, Ministry of Fisheries).

In average, 54 % of a whale total weight is consumed as meat and blubber, with up to 60% in larger whales, which have proportionally larger muscle mass than smaller whales. In comparison, in avarage 47% of a fish weight is consumed (Bloch 2007).

Whale meat and blubber are stored, prepared and eaten in a variety of ways (e.g., Bloch 2007, Ministry of Fisheries). When fresh, the meat is boiled or served as steaks, with blubber and potatoes. The meat and blubber can be frozen, or preserved using traditional Faroese methods such as dry-salting or storing in brine. Strips of whale meat are also hung to wind-dry for several weeks and then eaten raw in thin slices. Thin slivers of blubber are also a popular accompaniment to dried fish.

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Personal share after a "Grind."

FMNH salted blubber 

Salted pilot whale blubber. 

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Pilot whale meat air-drying. 

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Different ways of preparing pilot whale meat and blubber. 
Photo: Faroese Museum of Natural History