Faroe Islands whaling: The horrifying truth behind the tradition

Author: Lex Rigby

Read Time:   |  26th August 2022

Lex Rigby from Viva! investigates the horror of the Faroe Islands’ whaling tradition of killing thousands of pilot whales and dolphins

The Faroe Islands is a small archipelago located 230km northwest of Scotland, under the protectorate of Denmark.

For decades, the country has come under fire from activists for the mass killing of small cetaceans (aquatic mammals including whales and dolphins), but in September 2021, it became increasingly clear that enough is enough.

A brief history of the grind

Each year, about 850 long-finned pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins are brutally slaughtered by islanders participating in a practice called the grindadráp, or ‘grind’ as it’s commonly known.

It is a style of drive-hunting with boats that involves herding entire pods of these target species into shallow bays, where the animals’ beach and are then violently hacked to death and butchered with lances. Horrifying scenes of the grind show the sea turning blood red.

In the Faroe Islands, this type of whaling activity dates back to at least 1584, when records began, and continues today – despite pressure from the international community to stop. There are no seasons, no quotas and no limits on when the hunts take place or how many animals are killed. Supposedly, the meat and blubber is distributed between the local community and eaten.

Yet health concerns about the high levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) present in the meat have led the Faroese Head of Public Health Administration, Pal Weihe, to advise against consuming it.

The Faroese maintain that the hunt is a sustainable practice and an important cultural tradition. They say that pilot whales are a natural resource, which they ‘harvest’ with hooks, ropes and mønustingari (a Faroese knife designed to cut through whales’ spines) without any impact on their wider population.

According to the Communication Advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture of the Faroe Islands, the meat replaces food that would otherwise need to be imported, therefore enabling the Faroe Islands to maintain a higher degree of self-sufficiency in food production.

Long-finned pilot whales are one of the most calm and docile marine mammals. Image credit: eco2drew/Getty Images

Long-finned pilot whales are one of the most calm and docile marine mammals. Image credit: eco2drew/Getty Images

Social behaviours in cetaceans

Although pilot whales are not classified as endangered, their population numbers are unknown, so it’s difficult to assess how the slaughter of large numbers impacts resident groups. For that reason, it’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty that these hunts are sustainable and that they genuinely provide an essential food source in the modern age.

Cetaceans exhibit intricate social behaviours and displays of strong family bonds are well-documented. They’re highly evolved sentient beings and to assume the grind’s herding and the killing process doesn’t inflict fear and distress, as well as prolonged physical suffering, is completely unreasonable.

Individuals have been observed swimming around in the blood of their kin for hours on end and slaughtering entire family groups in front of one another raises serious ethical questions.

Supporters of the grind argue that the hunt is no different to killing animals in the slaughterhouse – except that as wild animals they won’t have experienced a life of misery on a factory farm beforehand. It’s hard not to agree with that, but it doesn’t justify the systematic execution of precious marine life.

Largest mass killing on record

On 12 September 2021, the Faroese grind faced even greater scrutiny after more than a staggering 1,400 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were hacked to death on the Skalabotnur killing beach in Eysturoy.

The scale of slaughter sparked not just international outrage, but also local indignation as the hunt became the single largest mass killing of marine mammals in history.

The chairman of the Faroese Whalers Association even went as far as telling the BBC that “it was a big mistake”, with participants vastly underestimating the size of the pod.

Although authorised and within Faroese law, the killing of white-sided dolphins is far less popular than the slaughter of pilot whales. Disgruntled voices from within the local community are uncommon, but a quick poll following the infamous grind indicated that just over 50 per cent of locals said no to the question of whether the Islands should continue killing dolphins.

However, when asked in a separate poll about the slaughter of pilot whales, 80 per cent expressed a wish for it to continue.

Image credit: MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN/AFP via Getty Images

Image credit: MADS CLAUS RASMUSSEN/AFP via Getty Images

End the trade deal, stop the grind

In response, animal protection groups around the world have joined forces to demand an end to the barbaric grinds.

Viva! added to the renewed pressure from the Stop the Grind coalition, promoting a parliamentary petition urging the UK government to suspend its controversial trade agreement with the Faroe Islands – which allows for wild-caught and farmed fish to the value of £100 million to be exported to Britain every year – until all whale and dolphin hunts are eradicated.

With over 10,000 signatures secured by October 2021, the government stated: “The UK strongly opposes the hunting of cetaceans and is committed to upholding high animal welfare standards in its trade relationships.”

Nevertheless, on 9 February 2022 came the announcement that a new Faroes deal had been signed, less than six months after the record dolphin massacre. The petition closed in March 2022 with a formidable 104,665 signatures, meaning that the issue will soon be debated in Parliament.

At Viva! we’re hopeful that change is coming but recognise the need to continue our work campaigning for veganism as the solution to rising concerns about animal cruelty and the climate emergency.

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Feature image credit: Jan Gil Kristiansen

Written by

Lex Rigby

Lex joined Viva! in 2018 after more than a decade campaigning to defend, conserve and protect marine wildlife. As Viva!’s Head of Investigations she is responsible for coordinating hard-hitting investigations to support Viva!’s ground-breaking campaigns, with the ultimate aim of growing veganism in the UK and increasing support for Viva!.

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