Faroe Islands pilot whale massacre ‘a natural way of life’

By Tracy Brighten      Contains graphic images

Anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd estimates 250 pilot whales were killed last week. Is it time tradition was buried with whale bones littering the seabed?

Pilot whale slaughter 2 by Sea Shepherd Peter Hammarstedt

Sea Shepherd protestors have been arrested trying to stop the pilot whale hunts in the Faroe Islands, but video footage and photographs by other group members captured the horrors of the mass slaughter.

The whale hunt known as the grindadráp, or “grind”, is a centuries old tradition with recorded history dating back to 1584, according to whaling proponents Whaling.fo. The whale meat and blubber once provided an important food source for the Faroese people, and whale oil was used for cooking and export.

Now, the islands have a thriving fishing industry with exports to the U.S and Europe. Fishery products, including farmed salmon, represent more than 95% of the total Faroese goods export. An archipelago of 18 islands between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands are a self-governing nation within the Kingdom of Denmark.

Last week, Denmark were supporting the whale hunt. Sea Shepherd’s Wyanda Lublink, Captain of the Bridgitte Bardot trimaran, alleges that Danish Navy ships guarded the flotilla driving the whales into the shallow bay at Bøur. “How Denmark – an anti-whaling member nation of the European Union, subject to laws prohibiting the slaughter of cetaceans – can attempt to justify its collaboration in this slaughter is incomprehensible,” she said.

The “grind” can take place at any time of year when a pod is sighted, but July to September is most typical when pods migrate past the islands. Entire families of whales, or pods, including pregnant whales and mothers with calves, are driven ashore where they are butchered, fully conscious, using hooks and knives.

New animal welfare regulations

Lances have now been banned by the Faroese authorities and replaced by a ‘spinal lance’ knife that severs the spinal cord. Sharp hooks that were thrust into the whale to drag it to shore have been replaced by a round-headed tool that is rammed into the blow-hole.

Campaign Whale are skeptical about the new regulations. “We don’t accept that the blow-hole hook is an adequately humane alternative to the sharp hook or that the spinal lance can be used in a consistently accurate and efficient manner to inflict rapid loss of consciousness and death in the often chaotic circumstances of a hunt.”

Whale meat toxic

The hunt also threatens human health. Since 2008, Faroese health advisors and scientists have warned that pilot whale meat contains high levels of mercury and PCB’s. Consumption should be limited to once a month, or not at all for children, young women, and pregnant or breastfeeding women. There’s a high incidence of disease on the island related to these pollutants.

Birgith Sloth, from the Society for the Conservation of Marine Mammals in Denmark says scientific advice has led to many islanders rejecting pilot whale meat. “Despite this, more than 1,300 pilot whales and white-sided dolphins have been killed in the Faroe Islands in 2013, suggesting that some people are consuming huge amounts of whale and dolphin meat.” She thinks the Faroese Government should enforce a ban on consuming toxic whale meat.

Is whale meat still needed for survival?

It’s difficult to accept that whale meat is needed for food, especially when an average of 800 whales are killed per year and the Faroe Islands have a population of around 50,000 – not enough to go round surely. Also, whale meat is traditionally distributed among the local community where the “grind” takes place.

Whaling.fo maintains that if whales weren’t hunted, more food would need to be imported, which “would also have a significant extra impact on the environment, considering the fuel needed for transport.” But perhaps the food gap could be filled by the Faroe’s fishing industry. It just wouldn’t be free, and there would be no hunt.

Inhumane slaughter

For those who argue that intensive farming slaughterhouse methods are no different to these whale slaughter methods in terms of animal suffering, Sea Shepherd’s video footage suggests otherwise.

Farm animal slaughterhouse methods are inhumane when rules are not in place to minimise distress and suffering, or when rules are breached. Much still needs to be done to improve their welfare, but where rules exist, animals are at least required to be handled in line, stunned and then killed.


This latest whale drive shows these magnificent social mammals in distress, thrashing about in a frenzied and chaotic bloodbath. Faroese men rush into the sea, wielding knives like warriors, their faces spattered with blood. But this is the 21st century. Islanders enjoy the progress of technology, yet they are trapped in the mind-set of tradition like the pilot whales trapped in the small bay.

Hunters are now required to attend a course on new regulations, and the slaughter is supervised by an official, but how well supervised is the kill method with so many whales and hunters in the water?

Whale meat wasted

Sometimes the pilot whale deaths don’t serve their alleged purpose. Sea Shepherd reports that in the past, pilot whales have been discarded into the sea when hunters weren’t able to process the meat before dusk; by the next day, carcasses were too decomposed to be useful. Not only can these intelligent, sociable and sentient animals suffer, they can be squandered.

The killing isn’t restricted to pilot whales, but includes white-sided dolphins, orcas, and bottlenose dolphins, reports Sea Shepherd. In 2013, 1,104 pilot whales and 430 dolphins were driven ashore, according to Campaign Whale.

Pilot whale by Adam Li

The pilot whale is not an endangered species and whaling.fo says that numbers killed by Faroe Islanders are small – around 800 per year. But do we wait until a wild species is endangered before considering how we can best protect them?

As well as whaling, pilot whales are at risk from marine pollution, over-fishing of squid (their food source), fishnet entanglement, ship-strike, oil and gas mining, seismic surveys, and military sonar. “The combined impact of these threats is quite simply unknown, but potentially catastrophic,” say Campaign Whale.

Time to question traditions around the world

Even if the “grind” is sustainable, does it make this cruel practise acceptable? Whaling.fo says of Faroese life that historically, “Living was tough and everything nature could yield had to be fully utilised with available means and skill.” It says the use of wildlife is “still a natural part of life”, describing pilot whales as “harvested”, like a crop of wheat rather than a sentient animal.

As we learn more about our environment and its animals, shouldn’t we replace traditions based on historical conditions that no longer apply? New cultural practises can then become new traditions. The Faroese are no longer an isolated community of hunters surviving in harsh conditions like their ancestors; by comparison, they enjoy an improved standard of living in a growing economy.

This sentiment applies to traditions around the world that involve animal cruelty and need reconsidering, such as France’s foie gras, Spain’s bull-fighting, the U.K’s fox hunting, Japan’s ‘scientific whaling’ and China’s rhino horn medicine and ivory obsession, to name a few. Progress isn’t just about improved technology, engineering, or medicine, it’s about enlightenment and moral progress that recognises animals as sentient beings worthy of our respect.

If the Faroe Islands is a “modern society closely in touch with its unique natural environment,” then the government might reconsider its modern day treatment of pilot whales, which seems to be more in touch with the past than with the unique environment it has the power to protect.

There is a petition to lobby for an end to this tradition. 

First published on The News Hub July 26, 2015

Image credit:
Slaughtered pilot whales line the dock by Sea Shepherd/Peter Hammarstedt
Faroe Island whale massacre by Voodoo911, Wikimedia Commons (public domain)
Pilot Whale by Adam Li, NOAA/NMFS/SWFSC on Flickr/CCBY2.0