The NatWest International Island Games, which happen every other year and brings together hundreds of athletes from small islands across the globe, is back this year in Guernsey. This is the third time Guernsey is hosting the event, which will take place in July. As the date approaches, the controversy around the Faroe Islands’ participation resurfaces due to its traditional marine mammal hunting practices.
Whaling in the Faroe Islands. Credit: Erik Christensen
Lyndon Farnham, a former Economic Development Minister from Jersey, another one of the Channel Islands, has called out the Faroe Islands, which comprises 18 self-governing islands as part of the Kingdom of Denmark, for its ‘absolutely disgraceful’ grindadráp hunts. Farnham wrote to the Island Games Association demanding the Faroese to be excluded from the NatWest Games until there was a ‘firm undertaking to stop the annual destruction of marine mammals’. This happened shortly after a pod of 1,428 white-sided dolphins was killed in 2021, sparking outrage around the world.
As expected, nothing happened regarding their participation in the Games. However, with the Mini Olympics just around the corner and as the first hunting of this year has just taken place earlier than usual (it frequently starts during summer), there’s no better time to shed light on this cruel practice and spread awareness of its impact not only for the animals but for the people.
The grindadráp or grind, as it’s usually called, is a hunting method created by the Vikings over 1,000 years ago, which the Faroese have preserved as a part of their culture. This archaic tradition consists of driving entire pods of small cetaceans (mainly long-finned pilot whales, which belong to the dolphin family, and Atlantic white-sided dolphins) to shore, where they face a painful death. When the animals are sighted, boats and other watercraft intercept them by forming a semicircle between them and the open sea. The noise created by the engines forms a ‘wall of sound’ that frightens those animals, which are extremely sensitive to sound and use echolocation to orient themselves, and herds them to one of the 26 designated killing bays where they’re eventually trapped.
Bottlenose dolphins after a hunt in the Faroe Islands. Credit: Palli Ásbjørnsson Justesen
There, they’re awaited by Faroese men (primarily men participate in the hunt), who either slaughter them there or drag them to the beach with ropes and gaff hooks, which are plunged into the animal’s sides and blow holes. Due to their movement and smooth skin, it’s usually necessary many stabbings before the hooks get attached to their bodies, prolonging their suffering.
The killing happens by using traditional blade knives to make deep cuts on the sides of the animal’s neck, just behind the blow hole, and finalising it with a cut in the middle, which severs the carotid arteries and the spinal cord. This violent killing method brings unimaginable pain to the animals, which in most cases die of blood loss. Besides the physical injuries, there’s also the emotional torment and stress of seeing their families die in front of them with no possibility to escape, just waiting for their turn while lingering in bloody waters. This all happens so their meat and blubber can be consumed by the locals.
While the Faroese government states the grindadráp is an organised and humane practice and the animals should be killed as quickly and as efficiently as possible, this isn’t always the case – and even if it was so, by no means it could attenuate its cruelty. According to Sea Shepherd UK, their crew often recorded killings that took over 20 minutes. Furthermore, the infamous episode of 2021, which saw over 1,400 dolphins killed, revealed how these hunts can turn into lengthy and disorganised massacres.
On the 12th of September, a large pod was driven for about 5 hours until they were finally trapped at Skálabotnur Bay and killed. It was the largest single hunt recorded in the Faroe Islands. Images and videos of the killings sparked criticism both externally and internally, with the Faroese government acknowledging that the result of the hunt wasn’t ‘satisfactory’ and stating that the large number of dolphins killed ‘is unlikely to be a sustainable level of catch on a long-term annual basis’. This led the authorities to set a quota of 500 dolphins for the following year.
The grind started as a necessity in the Viking times to provide food for the local community. However, today there’s an increasingly commercial nature for it. While most of the meat and blubber from the hunts are divided between the hunters and other residents, some of it is sold in stores and markets and eventually used as a main ingredient in expensive restaurants. This has been happening for many years before the government legalised the trade in 2021. In 2017, the Faroese newspaper Dimmalaetting revealed the commercialisation of whole pilot whales to supermarkets for 25,000 krónur each (around £3,000).
This hunting method went from a survival need centuries ago to a barbarous and needless activity nowadays. The Faroese government uses five pillars to describe its whaling practices: regulated, sustainable, communal, natural and food. As we dig into each one of those, it’s easy to refute their superficial statements. It’s indeed a regulated industry, however, this doesn’t mean it’s either ethical nor necessary.
Their sustainability page claims ‘the pilot whale population in the eastern North Atlantic numbers some 380,000 animals, with 100,000 in the area around the Faroe Islands. The average catch of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands over the past 20 years has been around 600 whales a year.’ However, there’s a lack of recent and accurate pilot whale population data and this number doesn’t take into consideration other species that are also killed: white-sided dolphins, as we mentioned before, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and bottlenose whales.
Grind in Klaksvik – Faroe islands july 2010. Credit: Arnø
The communal approach relates to the distribution of the catch between the locals which, as we’ve previously mentioned, still happens today but there’s also a commercial value in the meat. It isn’t pure ‘solidarity and sharing’ as they say. The food and natural aspects come hand in hand, both grounded in consumption and cultural excuses. Nowadays, the islands are extremely prosperous and largely supplied with products from around the globe. Its territory is ‘ranked among the highest in the world based on GDP per capita’ and receives an annual subsidy from the Danish government of €86 million, according to their website.
There’s absolutely no need to kill whales to feed the population anymore. The reasons behind the hunts are pure national pride and maintaining an outdated tradition seen as a sports event and entertainment by some. As if the cruelty and violence against intelligent and sentient animals aren’t enough to stop the barbaric grindadráp, many studies reveal the toxicity of whale and dolphin meat. Due to the increasing pollution of the oceans, these animals have high levels of mercury and other heavy metals in their meat.
Since the 1970s there has been concern regarding pilot whale meat when the Faroese Food and Veterinary Agency stated that the liver and kidneys of these animals were unfit for consumption due to unsafe levels of toxic metals. In 1998, the Agency advised adults to limit their consumption to twice a month, women and girls not to eat blubber until they have given birth to all their children, pregnant and nursing women not to eat any meat, and women not to eat meat within three months of a planned pregnancy.
A decade later, in 2008, Dr Pál Weihe, and chief medical officer, Dr Høgni Debes Joensen, declared that pilot whales were no longer safe for consumption as their study linked mercury poisoning to foetal neural development, high blood pressure, circulatory problems and possible infertility.
In 2010, Jennifer Lonsdale, of the Environmental Investigation Agency said: ‘Hunts in 2010 have produced about 550 tonnes of pilot meat and blubber for the 49,000 islanders. This equates to 11kg for every islander, including babies – almost 1kg per month per person. This is about five times 1998’s supposedly safe consumption recommendations, and it completely ignores the more recent warning not to eat pilot whale at all.’ Lonsdale’s statement exposes the frailty of the food consumption justification and its danger.
Medieval practices like the grind have no place in a modern world that demands a sustainable, ethical and progressive way of living. Culture and tradition can no longer be excuses for barbaric massacres of animals with the sole purpose of maintaining a sense of identity and community. We, as humans, are constantly learning, evolving, and reviewing outdated principles and actions. We’re in 2023, and we definitely know better than reproducing the behaviour of those that didn’t.
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