*Warning: this article contains images that some people may find distressing*
Whaling has taken place in the Faroe Islands for, at least, the past 1,000 years. Notably, in the form of an annual hunt called the grindadráp, or “the grind.”
The grind (rhymes with “wind”) typically takes place between July and September at any one of the 26 designated killing bays around the islands. The Faroese hunts lead to the death of around 1,000 pilot whales and other dolphins a year, according to marine conservation nonprofit Sea Shepherd. So far, in 2023, more than 800 individual dolphins have been killed as part of the hunts.
Sea Shepherd is one of many organizations to have spoken out against the grind, which has attracted widespread criticism for animal rights reasons. A petition launched earlier in 2023 calls for the grind to come to an end, and encourages travelers to rethink their trips to the Faroe Islands until then. The petition, which is nearing 400,000 signatures, saw a spike of support in July, after 78 pilot whales were killed in front of cruise passengers.
Meanwhile, others argue that the hunt is sustainable and an important tradition for Faroese people.
Here’s a closer look into the Faroe Islands grind, including why people eat whale meat and the impact of whaling and similar hunts on marine life.
Jump to section:
- What are pilot whales?
- What is the Faroe Islands’ grind?
- Whale meat as food
- Cultural significance
- Animal rights implications
- Other threats to pilot whales
- The future of whaling
What are pilot whales?
Deceptively named, pilot whales are actually one of the largest types of dolphin. There are two species: short-finned and long-finned. The latter are the primary targets of the Faroese grind. Male long-finned pilot whales have a lifespan of 35 to 45 years and can reach weights of 2,700kg. Females, on the other hand, grow to be around 1,300kg and can exceed 60 years of age.
Pilot whales are pregnant for longer than humans – for around 12 to 16 months. The calf nurses anywhere from 18 to 44 months, according to NOAA Fisheries. Some pilot whales, especially older and non-reproductive females, “babysit” for other whales, by taking turns swimming with their offspring.
On its website, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) describes pilot whales as “very sociable,” “incredibly loyal,” and having an “inquisitive nature.” They typically live in multi-generational pods and tend to stay with the pod they are born into for the entirety of their lives. Pods are close-knit and often play, hunt, travel, and rest together. They usually include around 10 to 20 individuals, but some “super pods” have hundreds of members.
“Pilot whales are extraordinarily social; their strong bonds with one another motivate them to stick together through thick and thin, even when that means putting themselves at risk,” WDC says. Oceana echoes this, saying that pilot whales tend to stick together “even in a crisis.”
It’s this tendency to stay together that puts them at a greater risk, according to the American Cetacean Society. “Humans have taken advantage of the social nature of pilot whales. ‘Drive fisheries’, where groups are herded to the beach for slaughter, have taken place on Cape Cod, Newfoundland, the Faroe, Shetland, and Orkney Islands, Iceland, and Norway,” the society writes online.
What is the Faroe Islands’ grind?
The Faroe Islands are located in Europe, situated between Iceland, Scotland, and Norway. The Faroes are a self-governing archipelago, which is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The islands are home to around 53,000 people. There are 18 islands in the archipelago and all but one are inhabited. The total land area in the Faroe Islands is 540 square miles. Meanwhile, the total marine area is 105,792 square miles.
It’s believed the Faroe Islands grind originated around the time the first Norsemen settled there – roughly the ninth century. Nowadays, it’s arranged by local communities of the 17 inhabited islands and is regulated by the Faroese authorities. However, there is no quota in place for the number of whales permitted to be slaughtered.
The grind can happen at any time. When somebody spots a pod of whales, the “grind master” is notified and the hunt commences. Locals use boats and other watercraft to herd the whales into a designated bay. They then use hooks, ropes, and mønustingari (a Faroese knife designed to cut through whales’ spines) to capture and kill the animals.
Participants must have a licence to partake. The licence is attained by attending a two-hour class held by a local veterinarian. This is where hunters learn to use the mønustingari, which paralyzes the animals and cuts the blood supply to the brain.
Why does whaling take place in the Faroe Islands?
Whale meat as food
Whaling in the Faroe islands is almost always for food purposes. Sometimes their teeth are collected and made into small pendants, says Kate Sanderson, who is the Head of Representation for the Government of the Faroe Islands.
Whale meat is eaten all year round in the Faroes, Sanderson says. “It’s eaten fresh when there has just been a whale drive, but it is also stored and preserved in both modern and traditional ways – freezing, wind-drying, dry-salted, or stored in brine,” she told Plant Based News (PBN).
The Faroe Islands’ government whaling website states that pilot meat contains protein, iron, and vitamins A and B. This, it says, is especially important in a country where vitamins from the sun and vegetables are lacking. The whale blubber (the thick layer of tissue under the skin), in particular, is described as “vitalizing.”
Health risks of whale meat
But the meat and blubber also contain environmental contaminants. This includes heavy metals (like methylmercury) and organochlorines (like polychlorinated biphenyl and dioxin). These pollutants are typically higher in concentration in predators like pilot whales. This is because they eat multiple sources of food which also contain pollutants, leading to a compounding effect.
As such, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority recommends that adults do not eat more than one meal of pilot whale meat and blubber a month. People who plan to give birth should not eat blubber at all. Similarly, people who are planning to get pregnant within the next three months, who are pregnant, or who are breastfeeding, should not eat whale meat either.
Many people in the archipelago reject the concept of whales as food altogether. A study from 2013 found that just 17 percent of young Faroese women consume whale meat once a month. Meanwhile, nearly half (47 percent) said they rarely or never eat it.
No women younger than 40 said they eat whale meat and blubber frequently. Along a similar vein, Save the Reef reports that less than 20 percent of Faroese islanders consume pilot whale meat and blubber at all.
Despite its animal welfare criticisms (more on that below), the grind has been defended by some for cultural and economic reasons.
“Traditional means of food production from local resources are an important supplement to the livelihoods of Faroe Islanders,” according to Páll Nolsøe, the Communication Advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture of the Faroe Islands.
He told PBN that whaling “has enabled the Faroe Islands as an island nation to maintain a relatively high degree of self-sufficiency in food production. In the Faroe Islands it is considered both economic and environmental good sense to make the most of locally available natural resources, and to maintain the knowledge required to use what nature can provide in a harsh oceanic environment.”
Some locals say that the mass killings bring about a “sense of community and teamwork.” Sanderson echoes this sentiment, stating that in the Faroe Islands, “maintaining the skill and knowledge needed to get food from the sea is an expertise that has been handed down over generations.”
“It is a community-based activity that requires many people to work together quickly and efficiently when a school of whales is found and driven into a bay which is also very important for community cohesion,” she said.
“Not to mention the practical economic value of whale meat and blubber as free food for local households – food that does not have to be imported or transported over long distances, and which is not produced through industrial processes,” Sanderson added. After a hunt is over, the meat and blubber is distributed within local communities.
Animal cruelty at the grind
Unsurprisingly, the Faroe Islands grind has come under fire for animal cruelty concerns. Sea Shepherd, for example, describes the hunts as “horrific” and “senseless.” The organization, which works to defend wildlife and the world’s oceans, has been visiting the Faroe Islands since the 1980s to protest and try to block boats. But after multiple arrests and a ban prohibiting the marine life protection group from interfering, Sea Shepherd now shares graphic footage and details of the hunts online to raise awareness.
Various pieces of footage show whaling “participants” driving watercraft into the animals, inserting hooks into their blowholes, and slicing their spinal cords. Every member of the pod is killed, including calves and pregnant mothers, and their blood turns the surrounding waters a deep red color. Similar footage was included in the popular Netflix documentary Seaspiracy, which exposes the impact of the environmental and ethical impact of commercial fishing.
One Faroese local, Rannvá Johansen, described the grind as violent and distressing for marine life. Speaking to ABC News in 2016, Johansen said: “When whalers locate the whale pods, they are driven ashore, [which can take] a very long time. The whales then get stressed and the entire whale family can see each other being killed and hear screaming from their babies. They can only wait for themselves to feel the knife.”
Multiple campaigns have called on local governments to outlaw the grind. A petition launched by Sea Shepherd about the matter has been submitted to the European Commission for consideration. Two similar petitions – one sponsored by the Rainforest Site and the other launched by Animals Australia – have so far gathered more than 89,000 and 140,000 signatures respectively.
Other threats to pilot whales
Pilot whales are not yet classified as endangered, but experts widely agree that humans are the primary threat to the species. Outside of hunts like the grind, a leading concern is the fishing industry.
Like countless marine animals, pilot whales are swept up as bycatch during commercial fishing operations, which see trillions of fish caught and killed for human consumption. But it’s thought that 10 to 40 percent of global “catch” is bycatch, including dolphins, turtles, and other wildlife.
Discarded fishing gear left behind by the industry is also a problem for marine animals. A 2020 WWF report found that between 500,000 and one million tons of fishing gear enter the ocean each year. The number of species affected by this pollution — from entanglement, or ingesting the plastic — has doubled since 1997. Now, 66 percent of marine mammals are said to be affected.
Commercial whaling, responsible for the deaths of approximately 1,000 whales a year, also impacts pilot whale populations, as well as many other species. Alarmingly, blue whale populations have declined by up to 90 percent compared to pre-whaling estimates.
The future of whaling
Whaling has ceased in many parts of the world. In 1982, the International Whaling Commission announced a whaling moratorium from the 1985/1986 season onwards. This temporary ban of the commercial hunting of all whale species remains in place today, however, Norway and Japan still hunt whales every year. Norway registered an objection to the ban, and Japan withdrew from the International Whaling Commission altogether in 2019.
Iceland had also been whaling each year despite the ban, but suspended its hunts this year over animal welfare concerns.
The Faroe Islands are exempt from the ban because the International Whaling Commission does not govern activities involving small cetaceans like pilot whales.
Do people support whaling?
Across the world, much of the general public opposes whaling. A 2005 survey conducted in southwest Scotland found that 96.4 percent of participants were against the whaling that takes place in Japan and Norway. No participants said they strongly support whaling.
The following year, the WWF conducted a poll in St Lucia, the Solomon Islands, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, and St Kitts and Nevis. When asked whether participants believed their country should return to commercial whaling, most said no. Sixty-four percent of the Marshall Islands, as well as the Tuvalu participants, rejected it. And 76 percent and 72 percent of Palau and the Solomon Islands participants, respectively, did not believe whaling should take place.
When Iceland pledged to end its annual whale hunt in 2020, it began to promote whale watching as an alternative. (The country has since committed to stopping whaling in 2024).
Whale watching is increasing in popularity. In 2018, 345,000 people engaged in whale watching in Iceland, compared to 72,000 in 2003. Similarly, in Japan, the number of people whale watching grew from 103,000 to around 234,000 from 2008 to 2016.