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The Cape Cod Blackfisheries and a Comparison with the Faroese Grind

By December 5, 2014No Comments

Commentary by Erwin Vermeulen

The choices you make once your society as a whole becomes affluent and educated, define your civilization and testify to your moral and ethical progress. It really doesn’t matter how long you have been killing and how well you have documented that history. If a stop to the killing threatens the survival of your culture, your culture does not deserve to survive.
~ Erwin Vermeulen

Please note that here “blackfish” refers to pilot whales, not orcas.


As in the Faroes, the Cape Codders would not only take pilot whales, but also dolphins, usually referred to as “porpoises,” when available Photo: Sea Shepherd / Erwin Vermeulen

When Henry David Thoreau, of “Civil Disobedience” and “Walden” fame, visited Cape Cod in July 1855 he witnessed a pod of long-finned pilot whales — at that time and place, referred to as “blackfish” — hunted ashore at a location called Great Hollow, on the west side of the Outer Cape near the town of Truro. A bit further north, he could see how another pod was chased. He describes the hunt in his 1865 book “Cape Cod.” His description could have just as easily applied to how the same species, during the same era, were slaughtered on the other side of the North Atlantic in the Faroe Islands:

“When I came to Great Hollow I found a fisherman and some boys on the watch, and counted about thirty blackfish just killed, with many lance wounds, and the water was more or less bloody around. They were partly on shore and partly in the water, held by a rope around their tails till the tide should leave them…They were waiting for the tide to leave these fishes high and dry, that they might strip off the blubber and carry it to their try-works…They get commonly a barrel of oil, worth fifteen or twenty dollars, to a fish.”

Many Faroese might now claim that they have always hunted pilot whales just for food, but that is not true.

As Joan Pauli Joensen describes in his book “Pilot whaling in the Faroe Islands”: “In the past the blubber that was not used for food was used to produce whale oil. The blubber from the whale’s head was cut away in pieces and melted down in an oil pot to produce whale oil. The oil used to be used in lamps. The oil used to be of great financial importance to landowners, as long as they received a relatively large share of the catch.”

The landowners that Joensen mentions have had the legal right to the lion’s share of whales killed or stranded on “their” shores for as far back as written history goes in the Faroes, with the remainder being distributed according to the custom of the locality.

That first share was called the Jardarhvalur, the whales allocated to the shore-owners.


While the brutal slaughter goes on in the Faroes in our time, in Cape Cod efforts are made to refloat beached animals Photo: Sea Shepherd / Erwin Vermeulen

Lucas Debes in 1673 is the first to describe the division of a grind: “…the first tenth is set aside as the sighting whale (the whale, largest of the pod or its equivalent in meat and blubber, allocated to those person or persons who first sighted the pod)…the remainder is divided into two shares, the one part for the people, the other for the one who owns the land, whether that may be the king, a nobleman or a commoner.”

When Jens Christian Svabo in 1779 describes the distribution, it is clear that oil production is an important part of the grind: “A one-florin whale is expected to produce one barrel of oil, a three-florin whale around three barrels, etc.”

By the time of the first whaling regulations of 1832 the land-whale comprised only a quarter of the catch and the crown-whale was to be sold for “1/3 of a pot of whale oil per skinn.” Oil is no longer produced; there was one last revival of this practice during World War One.

Thoreau mentions in his eyewitness report the tools of the bloody trade: “There were many harpoons and lances in the boats – much slender instruments than I had expected…”

On both sides of the Atlantic, spears and harpoons were used. The Faroese had the hvalvakn, a whaling spear used to stab the whales and consisting of a 45cm steel blade fastened to a wooden shaft of two meters in length. It was attached to a line so that it could be retrieved. It was used onboard the boats, but according to the whaling regulations of 1986 only the sheriff and whaling foremen are allowed to carry one in their boats now.

Besides the hvalvakn, the Faroese also had the skutil, handheld harpoons that were used when the foremen or sheriff officially abandoned the hunt and anybody could kill as they pleased and keep their catch, as happens in Thoreau’s description of the second Cape Cod hunt. The skutil is no longer used, as catches are no longer abandoned to a free-for-all in the Faroes.

Thoreau continues: “As I stood there they raised the cry of “another school,” and we could see their black backs and their blowing about a mile northward, as they went leaping over the sea like horses. Some boats were already in pursuit there, driving them toward the beach. Other fishermen and boys running up began to jump into boats and push them off from where I stood, and I might have gone too had I chosen.”

The hunts, both in Cape Cod and in the Faroes, were incidental, by chance. When pilot whales were sighted from the shore or by fishermen at sea, a hunt would be initiated.

One 1834 newspaper article read: “One Sunday, late in the fall, when the fishermen were quitting on their way home in boats from Provincetown an immense school of blackfish were discovered…They landed at Great Hallow.”

Of course people both on land and at sea would keep an eye out for whales to be hunted and killed, but boats both at Cape Cod and in the Faroes would not go out specifically to search for dolphin species as is done in Taiji, Japan.

Thoreau: “Soon there were twenty-five or thirty boats in pursuit, some large ones under sail, and others rowing with might and main, keeping outside of the school, those nearest to the fishes striking on the sides of their boats and blowing horns to drive them on the beach.”

On both sides of the Atlantic, sound was used to drive the whales. Compare Thoreau’s description with the one by American traveling botanist and author Elizabeth Taylor, who first came to the Faroes in 1895 and lived there for a total of 10 years. She wrote about a grind she witnessed in Midvagur: “the boats charged ahead with loud shouts, the clanging of metal on metal, and blows on the gunwales.”

There were shares per boat and for each man involved in the hunt both in the Faroes and in Cape Cod:

“It was an exciting race. If they succeeded in driving them ashore each boat takes one share, and then each man, but if they are compelled to strike them off shore each boat’s company take what they strike…

In the meanwhile the fishes had turned and were escaping northward towards Provincetown, only occasionally the back of one being seen. So the nearest crews were compelled to strike them, and we saw several boats soon made fast, each to its fish, which four or five rods ahead, was drawing it like a race-horse straight toward the beach, leaping half out of the water blowing blood and water from its hole, and leaving a streak of foam behind. But they went ashore too far north for us though we could see the fishermen leap out and lance them on the sand…I learned that a few days before this one hundred and eighty blackfish had been driven ashore in one school at Eastham, a little farther south…”


Many Faroese might now claim that they have always hunted pilot whales just for food, but that is not true Photo: Sea Shepherd / Erwin Vermeulen


As in the Faroes, the Cape Codders would not only take pilot whales, but also dolphins, usually referred to as “porpoises,” when available.

The line between a subsistence hunt and a commercial hunt was paper thin in these early societies. The poor fishermen in both Cape Cod and the Faroes would grab what they could get to make a buck and put food on the table and a roof over their heads. It doesn’t really matter if you eat the whale you kill or render it into oil that you sell and then use that money to get by.

Both societies had an upper class: the landowners that made a profit from whales driven onto “their” beaches in the Faroes and the oil merchants that owned try-works and/or transport ships in New England.

The history of the hunt in Cape Cod is not as meticulously recorded as in the Faroes after the early 1700s, but equally long.

As in any ancient, coastal society, people lived from what the sea had to offer, from barnacles, bi-valves and crustaceans among the rocks, and seaweed in the surf, to dead animals washing up on the beach. From there it is a small step to wade in and collect what is further out. Swimming or designing tools like harpoons, nets or fishing rods is already a bigger step and designing rafts, canoes and boats to take you even further out to sea, the next step.

The indigenous people of the Americas must have taken advantage of beached and dead, drifting whales centuries before the Europeans arrived, almost exclusively for food. There is no indication that they resorted to active whaling before the Europeans introduced it.

At daybreak on November 9, 1620, after two months at sea, the Mayflower reached the tip of Cape Cod. The Pilgrims were far north of the mouth of the Hudson River where they were supposed to land, but after a day the Pilgrims gave up travelling south and on November 11, they dropped anchor where today is Provincetown Harbor. Almost immediately whales surrounded the ship. The pilgrims, typical of the mentality of those times, regretted that they lacked the “instruments and meanes” to turn them into a fortune.

On December 6, while exploring the Cape’s inner arm, the shallop of the Mayflower saw a dozen or so Indians “busie about a blacke thing” near what is today Wellfleet Harbor. The next morning they found that the “blacke thing” was a great “fish,” which they called a “Grampus”. They found a couple more and this time the Pilgrims regretted lacking the “time and meanes” to boil down the blubber, but they did name the place Grampus Bay.


Pilot whales swim past the beautiful but deadly shores of the Faroe Islands Photo: Sea Shepherd / Erwin Vermeulen

We know this magnificent animal today as the pilot whale.

The earliest whaling by the colonists was again done by chance. People responded to strandings, and soon lookout stations were set up to watch for these whales, known as “drift whales”. Just imagine a time in which whales were so plentiful that you could stroll along the beaches or go out into the bay to collect deceased ones.

The colonists soon found out that many more whales ended up on the beaches of Cape Cod than further north along Massachusetts Bay. Provincetown was chosen for permanent settlement by the Pilgrims, because of the whales on the doorstep. The long, curvaceous arm of land receives one of the highest numbers of strandings in the world.

By the 1640s more than 200 people lived on Cape Cod with whale oil as a staple commodity, especially as fuel for lighting in their homes. Oil and whalebone had become part of international trade for the colony. Trying out the oil (extracting the oil from the blubber and other parts through boiling) and using that oil and whalebone for economic profit in the new world started with the Europeans.

During the winter months from November to mid-March, shore whalers would live in areas where whales were often seen: the lands around Cape Cod Bay, along the southern shore of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and on Great Island and Lieutenants Island in Wellfleet. Lookouts were posted at highpoints like dunes and hills, or a tower was built. Try-yards were set up.

In, for instance, the town of Southampton the rules were not unlike those today in the Faroes: “profits were shared by every inhabitant along with his child or servant above 16 years of age, those performing the labor to receive an extra share.”

There were whaling laws written by towns on Cape Cod as early as 1652. Ownership disputes over whales and tax paid to the public treasury soon became part of the endeavor.

Eventually the colonists became impatient waiting for dead whales. Why rely on God or natural causes for whales to die and beach themselves, on weather and currents or wandering pilot whales to supply whale oil and bone, if they could row and sail out to force providence?

Thus the colonists, slowly at first, then with increasing regularity, took to the sea in their boats and went whaling — shore whaling that is, within a few miles from the beach, when whales ventured close to shore or in shallow waters. Although they would occasionally kill a humpback whale, or drive a school of pilot whales ashore, the focus of the whale hunt in Cape Cod in those early days was directed at the right whale. The species was given the name “right” because they were known as the right kind to take: they came closer to shore, were slow, floated when dead, and yielded a large amount of baleen (then called whalebone) and blubber.

Colonists used whaling methods that had been developed centuries earlier in Europe. The right and bowhead whales were almost the only species hunted at the time, especially at Spitsbergen.

Whaling from small boats had been taking place in the Northwestern Atlantic long before the colonization of America. Basques and other Europeans had moved whaling to the Newfoundland Banks, when the right whales they had been hunting en masse since the 12th and 13th century became scarce closer to home.

Active shore whaling in New England only really took off in the 1670s. On Cape Cod the years between the end of King Philip’s War (1678) and 1715 were the glory days of active shore whaling.

Whales were food for the early colonists just as for the Faroese. Europeans had eaten whale for centuries during the Middle Ages as an alternative to the meat of land animals, which was taboo on lean days — more than half of the days of the year on the Christian calendar.

On American whaling ships, blackfish were taken for lighting oil, extracted from the head and blubber, and for a supply of fresh meat. As the colonies grew richer, whale meat became food “for Indians and swine to eat,” but on Cape Cod, obtaining oil from pilot whales and using them as food continued well into the 20th Century, as Cape Codders were too frugal to forego any bounty offered by the sea. As in Taiji, Japan, it was a dish more for local “fishermen,” rather than the general population of the colonies.

In the 1720s, throughout colony waters, whales were becoming scarce. In 1737 Provincetown killed only two small whales; in 1738 Yarmouth men killed but one whale that season; in 1739 just two whales were taken at Sandwich; and in 1746 only three or four whales were caught throughout all of Cape Cod.

This serves as a reminder that it does not take an industrialized society to wipe out a species.

Whaling went from shore-based to vessel-based and spread around the world — with New England’s Nantucket as the global leader in this first oil-boom industry.

Not until the 1880s, with the invention of the bomb-lance, was there a shore whaling revival in Cape Cod when whalers went after fins and humpbacks. The bow-mounted harpoon-canon, on steam- and later diesel-powered ships, soon followed. Modern whaling came to the Faroes as well at that time.

Now not a single species of whale was safe from humans anymore, anywhere.

After 1715, shore whaling declined, as had drift whaling thirty years earlier. On Cape Cod, shore whaling was no longer a thriving winter industry, but by this time, many blackfish were taken during summer. The Cape Codders had turned to another oil-producing animal: the pilot whale.

Blackfish arrived in summer, while the other whales arrived in winter. They were seldom seen earlier than June or later than December.

The excellent history book “Cape Cod Shore Whaling” by John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver, from which much of the above information is derived, says:

“Try-yards that appear in records after the civil war (1865) were used mostly for blackfish, rather than by original shore whalers.”

The same book produces a chronological list of captures from 1716 onwards, gathered from old newspaper records. It is not always clear if the animals were drive-hunted ashore or naturally stranded:

August 16, 1716: “…a great school of blackfish drove on shore at Mr. John Mulford’s cleft.”

1741: “A great number of blackfish and porpoises came into Cape Cod Bay. By the close of October, 150 porpoises and 1000 blackfish had been killed, yielding about 1500 barrels of oil.”

October 1742: “The people of Truro killed nearly four hundred blackfish at Mulford’s Cliff, near Truro. They cleared seventy-nine pounds (English currency) per share.”

September 1743: “Sixty blackfish were captured off Robin’s Hill in the north precinct. Proceeds were shared among those involved. Each received twelve pounds a share.”

The next month the people from Harwich killed four or five hundred blackfish at Mulford’s cleft and cleared 79 pounds a single share.

1744: “About three hundred blackfish were killed at Skaket by a few men.”

1745: “A school of blackfish was discovered off Robin’s Hill. Juddah Berry’s boat crew engaged in pursuit and succeeded in capturing 8.”

1759: “In November, a large school of porpoises was discovered in the bay. Eighteen boats were engaged in pursuit and some three hundred porpoises were driven ashore at Rock Harbor. Seven of the boats were from north side of Harwich.”

1834: “One Sunday, late in the fall, when the fishermen were quitting on their way home in boats from Provincetown an immense school of blackfish were discovered…They landed at Great Hallow.”

1850: “Seventy-five blackfish went ashore between Wellfleet and Truro.”

July 1, 1855: “a large school of blackfish were discovered in the Bay and driven ashore at Horseneck, East Brewster and Orleans…”

July 20, 1855: “A school of 73 blackfish were driven into Barnstable Harbor by Captains Joshua Hamblin and Jacob Howes. They are unusually large and fat and thought to bring about $1200.”

September 1855: “A school of blackfish, 102 in all, were driven ashore at Truro last week.”

1870: “767 blackfish came ashore on Cape Cod, yielding 1020 barrels of oil.”

1874: “The largest known school of blackfish ever driven ashore at Cape Cod, numbering 1405 stranded on Truro beach, yielding 27.000 gallons of oil. They lay on the shore from Great Hollow to Pond Landing, a distance of a mile.”

November 11, 1874: “300 at Truro, two weeks later 66 at the Island and 175 at Eastham.”

In 1874 the North American Oil Company invested $2,400 in boilers, tanks and kettles for trying out blackfish blubber in Wellfleet. In 1875, 300 barrels of oil were extracted, and 100 barrels in 1876. During 1877, 1878 and 1879, no blackfish appeared on the coast and operations were suspended.

Mid 1875: “120 blackfish in North Dennis.”

1885: “1500 blackfish entered Wellfleet Bay and were driven into Blackfish Creek. “Hundreds of men in boats surrounded the school, and frightened them into the narrow and shallow waters of the creek, where they were left on the beach by the receding tide. They were sold for $14.000 and the money was divided among those who assisted in the capture and killing.”

November 1885: “1200 to 1400 whales, worth about $12.000, were driven ashore from Provincetown to Dennis. During the last days of December, 5 to 600 blackfish came ashore on the backside of Sandy Neck.”

After that, no blackfish were seen for almost 30 years — and the whalers abandoned their gear. When there was a stranding of 30 animals in 1912, and another 50 a few weeks later, and then 180 after another few days, almost all of them were abandoned, owing to the lack of whaling apparatus.

There was a similar situation in the Faroes. In the period between 1750 and 1795, “only” 13 schools of pilot whales were killed — a total of 2,459 whales. The absence of pilot whales from around 1750 caused a disintegration of the whole system related to pilot whaling. People started to abandon their whaling gear in the Faroes as well.

Nobody knows for sure why the pilot whales suddenly stayed away. Overhunting would be a logical conclusion, but the killers in the Faroes, like those in coastal Japan, always blame the absence of whales and dolphins on changes in food distribution, related to changes in seawater temperature, caused by climatic variations.

Around Cape Cod there were more strandings in 1914, 1916, 1918, and 1926, continuing to the present day. Only the hunting days were over and the mentality of the people had changed.

While the brutal slaughter goes on in the Faroes in our time, in Cape Cod efforts are made to refloat beached animals.

A New York Times article of 1987 reports:

“When word of the first strandings was spread, scores of Cape Codders rushed to the beaches. Many plunged into the frigid waters to push or heave the pilot whales, most of them 25 feet long or more and all weighing several tons, out into deeper water. Volunteers manned bulldozers to lift smaller whales into crude stretchers and scoop them onto flatbed trucks, which were driven as quickly as possible to calmer inlets, where the whales were swung back into the quiet water.”

Another article reports that in September 1991, with help from an extremely high tide and an overcast sky, volunteers rescued 21 of 27 pilot whales that became stranded in the marshes of Chipman’s Cove.

There is now a stranding hotline and volunteer training and, as was necessary in January 2014 on Harding’s Beach, humane euthanization for animals that cannot be saved.

The choices you make once your society as a whole becomes affluent and educated, define your civilization and testify to your moral and ethical progress. It really doesn’t matter how long you have been killing and how well you have documented that history. If a stop to the killing threatens the survival of your culture, your culture does not deserve to survive.

(Pilot) whale hunting was definitely part of Cape Cod’s culture, but the people there have evolved, moved on.

In the Faroes, well-to-do lawyers, schoolteachers, driving instructors and taxi drivers rush to the beaches to kill for pleasure and for some free — but toxic — food. People flock to Cape Cod to go whale watching and the locals profit from and protect their valuable resource.

The Cape Cod whale-watching industry operates roughly from Mid-April to late October. Dolphin Fleet and Provincetown Whale Watches run trips out of Provincetown, while Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises leaves from Barnstable Harbor. In the rest of Massachusetts there are whale-watching trips? from Nantucket, Plymouth, Boston, Newburyport and Gloucester. And there are many more operators in Maine, Long Island and New Hampshire.

A 2009 study estimated that 13 million people went whale watching globally in 2008. Whale watching generated $2.1 billion per annum in tourism revenue worldwide that year, employing around 13,000 workers. The industry is set to grow 10 percent annually. Whale tourism could add more than $400 million and 5,700 jobs to the global economy each year. Of course whale watching comes with its own set of problems and uncertainties, but whales and dolphins are certainly worth more alive than dead today.

The Faroese could profit from the tourism industry, including whale watching. Some may say that will not work, as pods visit too irregularly. But how would they know if they have been killing every pod that ventured close to land for the last five centuries? The whales had been gone from Cape Cod as well. They returned when the locals stopped killing them.

The Faroes do not have to turn to tourism and whale watching; they can remain a subsidy-leech in Denmark’s pelt, if they want. They do however have to stop the killing. Those last barbaric governments that allow a small group of its uncaring citizens to continue slaughtering cetaceans must be forced to quit.

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