Warning: This story contains graphic photographs which depict the reality of whale-hunting in the Faroe Islands. Photographs as well as the language displayed in social media snapshots may be offensive.
Whaling is an issue which is plaguing the international media, and the current saga surrounding the Faroe Islands Grindadrap is headline news. Few would have missed the recent media circus and international outrage surrounding the killing of pilot whales in the Faroe Islands, a practice known locally as the Grindadrap.
Hundreds of pilot whales are slaughtered every year on Faroese shores, and the international community sits horrified as gruesome images circulate depicting the bloody scene.
International organizations rush to the islands to intervene, though many volunteers arrive on the islands ill equip to operate a successful campaign, relying heavily on media hype for facts, and with little understanding of, or willingness to understand, the Faroese culture.
They fail to realize that it is only when you understand something that you can effectively seek to change it.
Understanding the Faroe Islands Grindadrap
There is a lot of misinformation as to the facts of the pilot whale hunts online. Hate speech plagues social media, propaganda quickly spreads, and intentionally created myths circulate, all forming part of an aggressive (and highly counterproductive) campaign to end the pilot whale hunts.
But those who spout hate speech online; those who intentionally promote misinformation, ignorantly take myth for fact, and spread propaganda aiming to smear an entire society in the world media, these people do not achieve a thing, and it this kind of barbaric ignorance which is worse than the slaughter of pilot whales themselves.
The Faroese Culture
The Faroe Islands are a small archipelago of islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. The islands are some of the most remote in the world, and as such, have remained largely unchanged by time and uninfluenced by modern societies.
Direct decedents of Vikings, the Faroese are incredibly proud of their cultural heritage. Through plague, 400 years of pirate attacks, trade monopolies, colonial oppression from numerous foreign powers, and braving their harsh oceanic environment, they have stood on the brink of extinction many times and survived.
Their ancient Nordic language has survived and is still spoken to this day, they still row for sport and navigate the ocean on beautiful wooden boats similar to traditional Viking ships, and they continue live largely off the land, killing pilot whales as a source of food.
Pilot whales have been instrumental to the survival of the Faroese people. Severely isolated in the North Atlantic Ocean, through famine, failed harvests and supply shortages (for instance where Danish supply ships were prevented during war), it was once vital that the Faroese were able to provide their own food, and perhaps self sufficiency in their harsh oceanic environment is an ability which they do not wish to lose in a desperate situation.
The mountainous islands and harsh conditions of the Faroes are largely unfit for agriculture, and as such, the islanders depended solely on fishing, livestock…and whales.
The Pilot Whale Hunts
The Grindadrap, more commonly referred to as the Grind, is an opportunistic whale hunt which occurs annually in the Faroe Islands.
A non-commercial hunt (the meat is not exported, but kept for themselves and distributed amongst the community as free food), pilot whales are harvested for their meat and blubber and then shared amongst the Faroese community.
This has historically been an important economic relief to the islands, who rely heavily on international imports due to their remote location.
A whale hunt only occurs when whales are sighted by chance, and close enough to land to drive into the shores of shallow bays and beach.
Faroese animal welfare legislation stipulates animals are killed as quickly and with as little suffering as possible – whales are killed with a spinal lance which is used to sever the spinal cord, simultaneously severing the major blood supply to the brain, meaning a loss of both consciousness and death within seconds.
Pilot whales are not endangered, and with an estimated average of around 1,000 animals killed each year (representing less than 1% of the total estimated pilot whale stock) the hunt is internationally recognized as a sustainable practice.
Health Concerns About Eating Pilot Whale Meat
Like any whale, Pilot Whales are known to accumulate high levels of heavy metals such as mercury, and as such, consumption of whale meat in the Faroe Islands has declined in recent decades due to well documented fears about associated health risks.
It was in 2008 when the Department of Public and Occupational Health recommended that pilot whales no longer be considered fit for human consumption due to the presence of DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury in the meat, and while this recommendation originally sparked much debate amongst locals, the fact is now undisputed.
“This is the main reason people have stopped eating it” says Rúni Nielsen, food science advisor from the Faroe Islands. “And those who continue eating it don’t believe.”
Mercury poisoning is often used as a weapon to portray the Faroese as mentally deficient barbarians, and is also in many instances used as a threat. “Maybe a little mercury poisoning is well deserved there. It’s nothing but karma” is a common citation online.
Though have we, sitting in our urban environment, really become so ignorant that we can look past the fact that the whales we are claiming to defend are being poisoned in their natural environment? How can we possibly reprimand and shame the Faroese for animal cruelty when the majority of those pointing the finger continue a lifestyle which contributes to the presence of the mercury in the first place.
And as one Faroese man said, “why is it acceptable for whales to be poisoned with mercury as long as no-one kills and eats them?”.
The Faroese Respect For Nature
So intimately connected with their natural environment, the Faroese have a high respect for nature, and for all animals, including whales.
Animals in the Faroe Islands are treated a lot better than anywhere else in the world, and pilot whales are free right up until the point at which they are killed. The ultimate definition of free range food.
There is no denying that animals are killed, slaughtered and eaten, though they live a very good life before that. They are treated respectfully, and left to roam the islands freely, though the islanders will slaughter them to eat them if they have to. Lives are often dependant on it.
The Faroese value and respect for all animals is one reason behind the preference towards pilot whales. “A lot of Faroese people believe you should not prefer the death of one animal over the death other another animal” says Runi Nielsen to the query as whether the Faroe Islanders consider pilot whales to be higher order animals.
“So it’s like the value of life is not based on the level of understanding or intelligence or nervous system capacity, it’s more about how the value of life is all the same.”
“A lot of people out in the villages kill their own sheep. If their dog is terminally sick, they shoot their own dog. So it is more or less like the right to live respectfully and die respectfully, so in that sense, for me, there is very little difference between killing a fish which most people eat, or killing a whale or a sheep.
I really can’t see the difference, because it’s one life or another life which you will take. And this intelligent talk about “that animal is more aware than someone else”, for me this is like hypocrisy. I’ve never taken part in a grind, but every time I have to kill a sheep I think “now I’m ending the life of this individual.”
One argument is if you think about a whale for which may weigh many tons, and you think one life, for the equivalent of food and weight, is equal to 500,000 chickens. You’re taking 500,000 lives, or you’re taking the one. So if life is an entity that is equal, no matter if you are this big, or as big as the world, then I think it is much more ethical to kill larger animals than to kill millions of chickens who have terrible lives and are battered etc.”
While the consumption of pilot whale meat is declining, it is important to note that it still represents about a quarter of the meat consumption in the Faroes, and as such remains economically significant. If the Faroese were to stop hunting whales, they would have to catch a lot more fish or kill other animals within their environment as replacement.
Personally, I find it difficult to listen to the bigoted ignorance which is continually spouted online.
“I wish a tsunami would sweep over the islands”; “blood thirsty murderers, the Faroese are barbarians”; “those sick bastards”; “I hope they all die from eating toxic meat”; “Dirty sons of bitches. This disgusting island should rot in hell”.
These are among many of the aggressive and accusatory statements which plague social media – a highly over emotional response which makes finding truth difficult, and finding a solution impossible.
It seems too many people are yelling and screaming about how the Faroese can sleep at night without caring about taking any action to find out how.
These people head to the islands looking to impose their own views upon the Faroese without being willing to sit and listen to what they have to say, or attempt to understand their way of life. This is cultural imperialism at its worst.
Despite popular belief, the Faroese are not blood thirsty murderers or psychopathic killers – they are in fact an incredibly friendly society who actually welcome foreigners, and are very willing to open their doors and cooperate with those who show them respect.
They completely understand that other people’s opinions differ from their own, and are more than willing to discuss any issue openly in a respectful manner. And, should they be presented with convincing enough arguments, many of them are even willing to change their ways. But what they do not respond well to is being demonized and shamed by those who have made no attempt to understand their way of life.
I come from an urban environment with a carbon footprint which is wreaking absolute havoc on the natural world. In fact, it’s the urban lifestyle I lead which is contributing to the mercury which is poisoning pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.
I happily eat meat with no desire to learn more about where it comes from. My lunch meat is most likely the result of factory farming which provides huge amounts of meat in a very cruel way. So how can I, with no knowledge of what it takes to survive in an isolated environment, and worlds away from the source of my food, how can I pass judgment?
How can I dare to judge another society when the treatment of animals in my own country provokes the Faroese in the same way the Grindadrap provokes us? Is this not the highest level of hypocrisy?
“What is completely natural for people in the Faroes, seems so alien to other people, who have never lived here – or in similar places – so they can’t possibly understand the Faroese way of life. And thus many of the aspects of this life provokes them”, says Elin Brimheim Heinesen in an article titled “You provide sustenance for yourself with what is available to you.”
“People are often provoked or disgusted by what they don’t understand. To be fair: The Faroese are also themselves sometimes provoked by traditions in other countries. People in the Faroe Islands – a sheepherding country – are, for instance, provoked and even disgusted by the Australian tradition of mulesing merino sheep, which seems very cruel to some.”
Ending the Grind in a Productive and Peaceful Way
There are actually people within the Faroe Islands who are fighting against the grind. Locals who do not believe it should continue.
There are also a large number of conservationists who arrive with an open mind ready to facilitate peaceful dialogue aimed at education and awareness about the consequences of continuing the tradition.
Organizations such as the New Zealand based Earthrace Conservation Society recognize the problems inherent in a confrontational and aggressive approach, and are working together with local islanders to end the Grind in a peaceful manner.
They are working to change the way the Faroese view pilot whales as food, and promote tourism and a whale watching industry as an alternative economic relief. THIS is how the grind will end.
There are many valid points as to why the grind should end, however those who spread hatred and attempt to attack the reputation of an entire nation without a thought for how to peacefully approach the situation do absolutely no good.
Provocative anti-whaling activist campaigns such as those mounted by the Sea Shepherd are highly counterproductive and merely strengthen the desire of Faroese nationalists to fight harder to preserve their cultural heritage. Hell, they make even me want to rally behind the Faroese whalers.
Pilot whales no longer need to be hunted in the Faroe Islands, and what was once a tradition vital to survival is now largely continued as an emotional attachment to cultural heritage.
Whether or not you believe the Faroese Grind should end depends upon many different factors. It depends on how greatly you weigh the loss of a cultural tradition against the loss of an animal species. It requires weighing culture against conservation.
Though those seeking to see an end to the pilot whale hunts first need to learn the real facts, and then support local islanders who are working towards a peaceful resolution. Listen and understand what you’re dealing with before taking action.
Because those actually concerned with putting a stop to the Faroese Grind are not on the islands bearing pickets. Those actually concerned are not making a difference by spreading hate.
Those actually concerned about putting a stop to the Faroese Grind are bright enough to have gained an understanding of the grind, appreciate the background and history behind it, and land in the Faroe Islands ready to promote education of the negative consequences of continuing this tradition.
Only after you truly understand something can you fight to put an end to it. Only when you understand where someone is coming from can you form an appeal to change their opinion.
International pressure will not stop the Faroese Grind. The Islands have prospered isolated from the outside world for centuries, and will continue to do so if they must. It is for this reason too, that a travel boycott to the islands is counterproductive.
While tourism is beginning to take a larger and larger role in the Faroese economy, it’s not a make or break. The grind will only stop when the Faroese people want it to, and therefore, the only way conservationists can make a difference is by promoting continued education, and cooperating to change thought and opinion.
An entire culture will not change overnight. And you certainly cannot bully an entire society, or attempt to bend them to your will and believe this will prove instantly effective. Yes, there are many ways to expedite change, though only with the correct approach.