I FIRST met a group of Faroese sailors on a 125-year-old sailing fishing vessel on the Isle of Lewis while I was making my previous documentary, The Guga Hunters of Ness for the BBC.

They had sailed past the remote rock of Sula Sgeir in the North Atlantic where we were filming the gannet hunt in the gales. They thought if we were crazy enough to do that in our boat they should invite us to film their own hunting traditions.

But after spending time with the Faroese people, it became clear that there were bigger issues than the hunting to the story. In their remote home in the North Atlantic, the Faroese have always eaten what nature could provide, proud to put local food on the table. The sub-arctic land yields little vegetation, so they had always relied on harvesting their seas.

Hunting whales and seabirds kept them alive for generations, and gave them the way of life once shared with Scotland, but today the Faroese face the end of this way of life.

Seabirds in the Faroes are in rapid decline, the birds’ food sources depleted due to warming seas and their bellies are regularly found full of plastic; while the whales were so riddled with mercury and PCBs that they were now toxic to eat.

The film shows the struggle of professor Pal Weihe, a Faroese doctor, who carried out a groundbreaking study of his people in conjunction with Harvard University to see if exposure to marine pollution found in whale meat was harming his people. He had the unenviable task of delivering the grim news that it was. Along with tuna, swordfish and other fish also high in contaminants, the whale meat had, in significant numbers, impaired cognitive function in children exposed in the womb or early childhood.

The seemingly pristine and remote Faroe Islands suddenly found themselves on the frontline of a global environmental story. The Faroese had to choose between health and identity.

The meat is shared for free communally, it is not a commercial hunt, and the pilot whales as a species are not endangered and they had defended their local food source on these grounds. But the new health threat put the majority off eating it, although many suspected it to be anti-whaling propaganda.

The islands were used to confronting hostile anti-whaling groups, so they thought that would be our angle. It’s a sensitive and controversial subject and we’d been told our cameras might be smashed at a whale hunt, which thankfully didn’t happen. Instead what the people did give us was an unparalleled and honest insight.

Amid the difficulties of Covid-19, the health plight of the Faroese people may seem far off, but I think many viewers in Scotland will see parallels with their own concerns about the damage we have done to the seas and our environment coming back to haunt us. I spent five years making this film, getting behind the headline coverage and often false information that surrounded the whale hunts to try to tell the story of what will be coming for all of us if we refuse to wake up and continue contaminating the natural world. Tuna and swordfish contain around half the level of mercury of the pilot whales so that time is upon us already.

A huge amount of the mercury that is finding its way into our fish comes from burning coal so it is nothing short of self-destruction to allow that to continue. The good news is the half-life of mercury is only six weeks, so the seas can return to normal, if we stop polluting.

Finding mangled plastic on beaches is sadly also common in Scotland and there is a risk of this increasing as we are distracted by Covid, there are already a lot of disposable face masks and gloves polluting the seas.

There couldn’t have been a film without the Faroese community, it was incredibly moving how much they supported this film. As much as they defend the hunting against outside criticism, they know that it is deeply unpopular. But there was a feeling amongst many that this was a tradition that would end, and that it should be documented before it does.

Most of the Faroese population have now vastly reduced the amount of whale they eat and those we filmed wanted to send a message to the world that the Faroes should be a warning to us all, a canary in the mine … And that while they may be the first to feel the effects of how much we’ve damaged the seas, without rapid action to reverse it we’ll all be suffering the consequences and taking the food we love off the table.

The Islands and the Whales will be shown on the BBC Scotland channel on Tuesday, December 15 at 10pm.