Whaling in the Faroe Islands

Travel to the Faroe Islands and you’re bound to come across the issue of whaling – this is one of the few remaining places on earth where pilot whales and dolphins are killed for their meat, which, along with the blubber, is eaten in homes (and sometimes restaurants) across the islands.

The hunt, known locally as the grindadráp or the Grind, has come under intense international scrutiny in recent years, and in 2018, graphic images filmed by a British student were splashed over the pages of the international press. The Faroese insist that the hunt is sustainable and humane, but animal rights groups including Sea Shepherd have launched campaigns against it, leading to ugly clashes with whalers, and in some cases, the arrest of activists.
The pictures of the hunt are certainly distressing, but before simply condemning it as barbaric, it’s useful to examine its history and cultural significance. The islands’ remote position and wild landscapes mean that for hundreds of years, ever since the Vikings landed here in the 9th and 10th centuries, the residents have relied on the ocean for survival – hunting pilot whales for food, blubber and other materials. There are written accounts of the hunt dating back as far as the 17th century as well as records detailing the number of whales killed annually since 1709 – and more sporadic catch statistics dating as far back as 1584.
Although whaling is banned in Denmark, the Faroe Islands have independent laws and whale hunting remains legal here. Unlike in other major whaling nations such as Iceland, Japan and Norway, the hunt isn’t commercial – no one makes a living from it – and hunts aren’t organised in advance. A pod of whales or dolphins has to come close enough to the shore and the weather has to be calm before a hunt takes place; and even then the local sheriff of the closest town or village has to grant approval. When the hunt is over, meat and blubber are divided equally among the participants – with any leftovers distributed around the local village or further afield.

The number of pilot whales caught and killed varies each year, but the Faroe Islands official whaling organisation and the Faroe Islands Tourist Board state that the average is a little over 800 pilot whales and about 75 dolphins. The pilot whale population in the eastern North Atlantic is about 778,000 whales, with approximately 100,000 around the Faroe Islands, making the Grind sustainable, according to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMC).

What offends activists most about the hunt is the way in which the whales and dolphins are killed - a process that has remained mostly unchanged for centuries. During a grindadráp, hunters take to the waves in small boats, driving pilot whales into a shallow bay where they’re killed with knives. The hunt draws large crowds, with many, including children, getting into the water to help bring the whales to the shore. The images are disturbing: the water is the bay in stained red by blood, as people drag the whales with metal hooks and carcasses lie side by side on the beach.
Faroese legislation stipulates that the animals are killed as quickly and painlessly as possible and participants have to have completed training and been granted a hunt licence before taking part; but animal campaigners including PETA contend that in practice, the animals suffer greatly. “Metal hooks are driven into the stranded mammals' blowholes before their spines are cut,” their website states. “Whole families are slaughtered, and some whales swim around in their family members' blood for hours.”

Many Faroese resent outside interference in what they see as part of their cultural inheritance are quick to defend the practice, saying that critics are out of touch with how their food is produced. For example, musician and hunt participant Heri Jojensen told The Spectator In 2016 that he saw no different between the grind and slaughtering farmed cows, “All animals suffer: if you can slaughter cows for meat, why not slaughter wildlife?” he said. “In Europe, killing an animal has become so unfamiliar to people. They are used to eating meat coming out of plastic in a shop. It’s very convenient for them – they don’t need to think about the reality of slaughterhouses.”

For animal activists, the argument that whaling is no worse than farmed meat doesn’t justify the cruelty of the hunt. And certainly, now that food is readily available from other sources, the tradition is no longer necessary for survival. Even less so given that the meat may not even be suitable for human consumption. High levels of toxins, including mercury and other heavy chemicals, have been found in whale meat and blubber in recent years – and many in the local medical profession recommend that whale meat not be eaten at all.
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Ulrich Latzenhofer] [Historical art: British Library] [Blood stained water: Erik Christensen]