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Why Are Whales and Dolphins Killed in the Faroe Islands?

By June 27, 2014No Comments

Some of the beautiful wildlife located on the Faroe Islands
Photo: Sea Shepherd

From the outside, it is not possible to know and comprehend the thinking of a people numbering some 48,000 persons. The best one can do is to listen to what individual members of the population say and read what the officials post in an effort to understand.


What we can all agree upon is that, in most years, Faroese people intentionally kill hundreds of pilot whales, dolphins, and other small cetaceans in the Faroe Islands. We can also agree that this slaughter has been going on for hundreds of years.

What we are unable to agree upon is why this slaughter occurs.

I was aware of the slaughter, or grind, for some time before I ever visited the Faroe Islands. My first visit was during the summer of 2011. Sea Shepherd mounted a campaign that year to protect the pilot whales using ships, an overt ground crew, and an undercover ground crew. Unfortunately, the Animal Planet series misidentified the overt ground crew as the undercover crew. I was with the actual undercover crew and spent several weeks living as a tourist in the Faroe Islands. Because I was not identified as being with Sea Shepherd, I was able to hear what some Faroese individuals had to say to outsiders about the grind and about Sea Shepherd. I never needed to raise the topic because it was what everyone we encountered wanted to discuss.

I heard that the grind was conducted for food and for tradition. I heard from people who claimed to have participated in grinds that it is exciting. I heard that a grind provides an opportunity for people to break up their daily routines and gather with friends and neighbors. Who knows if any of these is a true or encompassing statement, but it is what a couple of “tourists” were told by some members of the Faroese community.


Because of Sea Shepherd and its cameras, the Faroese do not want to end up like Taiji
Photo: Sea Shepherd

I also heard why the decision had been made not to conduct a grind while Sea Shepherd and its cameras were present in 2011. In short, I was told, “We do not want to end up like Taiji.” It was explained to me that because of Sea Shepherd and its cameras, the world reviled Japan over the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan. I found this sentiment personally satisfying because in September 2010, my daughter, Elora Malama, and I had started the current Sea Shepherd Cove Guardian campaign in Taiji. While it has recently been expressed to me that the Faroese do not give a “shit” about what the rest of the world thinks of them, I have to believe otherwise. Trade and tourism alone would be enough for the politicians to care and I heard from regular citizens in 2011 that they in fact do care.

I am now on my third visit to the Faroe Islands. I returned in March 2014, in preparation for the current GrindStop campaign. That time, I was clearly associated with Sea Shepherd. I met with the Faroese police and talked to some Faroese citizens. Most recently, I arrived in the Faroe Islands on June 9 with the onshore crew for Operation GrindStop 2014.

So why do the Faroese people conduct the grind and why do they continue it in light of the worldwide condemnation against them for doing so?

I will discuss the second half of this question first. In general, Iceland, Norway, and Japan do not condemn the Faroese because Iceland, Norway, and Japan ignore international prohibitions on killing whales. However, most developed countries on the planet prohibit the killing of cetaceans, large and small. In the United States, one can be sentenced to serious prison time for hurting or killing a cetacean. As citizens of the world have become aware of the grind in the Faroe Islands, condemnation of the practice and its practitioners has increased. It is a shame that such a beautiful place as the Faroe Islands, with its rich cultural aspects and very modern and connected infrastructure, is vilified because of the grind. Vilified it is, though, and only the Faroese can turn that around by ending the grind. Trade and tourism are likely to be victims of a continued grind. Yet, travellers from the around the world would pay good money to experience living pilot whales and other small cetaceans in the wild in the waters off the Faroe Islands. The pilot whales are simply far more valuable to the Faroese economy alive than dead.

From the outside, it has appeared that the slaughter or “grind” is a sport or a right of passage. I have come to understand that this is not true, at least for most Faroese people.

The official answer is found at this link: Whales and Whaling in the Faroe Islands

In the FAQ (18 February 2014) it is stated: “Whale drives in the Faroe Islands take place to provide food (whale meat and blubber).”

This is a very interesting statement. “…to provide food…” suggests pilot whale (meat and blubber) is an essential and substantial part of the Faroese diet. In the link on this page, “Revised dietary recommendation, 1 June 2011” we find:

  • “Adults should eat at most one meal of pilot whale meat and blubber per month.”
  • “Special recommendations for women and girls:
  • Girls and women should refrain entirely from eating blubber as long as they are still planning to have children.
  • Women who are planning pregnancy within the next three months, who are pregnant or who are breastfeeding should refrain from eating whale meat.”
  • “The kidneys and liver of pilot whales should not be eaten.”


The recommendations encourage all girls to refrain from eating whale. The recommendations are silent when it comes to boys.

So in one breath the official statement is that the grind is about food and in the same breath we hear that the consumption of whale should be minimal. Which is it?

I do believe that there once was a time when the people of the Faroe Islands would have starved had they not consumed whale. The whale (meat and blubber) has been described in the Faroe Islands as a “Gift from God.” There is absolutely no evidence though that anyone today or tomorrow would go hungry, much less starve, if no more pilot whales were killed here.

I have heard, on more than one occasion, something to the effect, “but I like the way it tastes.”

Does this mean that it is a delicacy then? A delicacy is a luxury and not a necessity.

We are told the grind is a food supply, but clearly it is not a substantial food supply similar to the way corn, beef, rice, soy, and fish are around the world. It is eaten though and is not used for commercial enterprise. Some is sold locally.

In fairness to the position of the Faroese government:

“It is the view of the Faroese Government that the major focus of international efforts by governments, international bodies and environmental organisations must be to protect and promote the rights of coastal nations to the sustainable use of their marine resources. This is best achieved by adopting effective measures to reduce and eliminate, at its source, global industrial pollution, which can end up in the valuable food provided by the sea.”

Whaling in the Faroe Islands, October 2013

We can agree here, at least in part. We all need to address the myriad of problems afflicting the oceans: Toxins, pollutants, plastics, overfishing, poaching, acidification, climate change, and more. The marine ecosystem is under assault and losing the battle. As Captain Paul Watson has said, “If the oceans die, we die.” Life on land is not possible without a living ocean.

Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that the expansion of coal-fired electricity generating plants is going to abate any time soon. Mercury found in the coal is released into the winds and settles on the oceans. From there, it moves up the food chain to apex predators, including humans. This is just one of the many contributors to the toxic load now found in whales. It is unlikely that anyone alive today will see a time when the whales are free of human-induced contamination. There is no foreseeable future where whale will be safe for humans to consume. I have heard the argument that there is a need to keep the skills required to kill a pilot whale. If there is no current need to consume whale, there is no foreseeable need to consume whale, and there is no foreseeable time when consuming whale would be safe, why do pilot whales continue to be killed in the Faroe Islands?

I often hear statements about how the grind is culture and tradition. It is without question that the grind is very old in the Faroe Islands. But, is that enough of a reason to continue something that is so obviously unnecessary and condemned by so many other humans around the planet?

It is interesting to think about what it means for humans to lay claim to the world and the creatures within. Humans, like all animals, have to eat. The Earth provides the resources and nutrients necessary for life to exist. Humans, though, have a tendency to think themselves superior to every other life form and that they have a God-given right to exploit the planet and the life on it. This is a dangerous point of view, particularly when there are so many of us on the planet now. How much abuse can the planet take before the whole life support system collapses? Perhaps we should think more along the lines that we have a God-given responsibility to protect the planet and the life it sustains.

Those who subscribe to Judaism and Christianity are told that humans may “rule over” or have “dominion over” the creatures of the Earth. (Genesis 1:26) But with rule and sovereignty comes responsibility and accountability. We are told that the Faroese authorities make an effort to reduce cruelty in the grind and to consider the impacts on the species. As the scientific community learns more about the complex aspects of cetaceans, (whales, dolphins, etc.), all of us need to examine our positions on how we treat other sentient and “non-human persons.”

Also, the question needs to be asked why the people of the Faroe Islands assume that the pilot whales transiting through their waters are the property of the Faroese people? Pilot whales and other cetaceans transit the planet and many cover great distances. The whales that in one nation’s waters are protected and whose people there delight in their presence are the same whales that travel to the shores of other lands. Cetaceans belong to the oceans, not to humans of any nationality.

I actually value traditions and culture. There is much to be said for protecting languages, dress, music, architecture, art, and other expressions of who we are. The world keeps getting smaller so it is all the more important to remember from where we came. However, there comes a time for some traditions and cultural expressions to retire to the museums and history books. We would not want to see cannibalism or human sacrifice practiced today, but for those who did once practice them, they were extremely important cultural activities.

Sea Shepherd is in the Faroe Islands. There are volunteers from more than 27 nations spending their time and personal resources to protect the whales. Before we leave in October, well over 600 individuals and perhaps even many more, will have come here to stand with and for the whales. We are not here to wage war on the people of the Faroe Islands. We are here to protect whales. Should a grind occur, we intend to intervene and we know full well that things could become dangerous. No one on either side of the issue wants to see anyone harmed.

But Sea Shepherd will leave in early October. What will happen to the whales then? The answer is up to the Faroese people. The Faroe Islands are a picturesque, modern, educated, informed, connected, clean, and safe place. There is no justifiable reason for the people of the Faroe Islands to continue killing whales. We know that we have facilitated a debate among the people here on the question. There are some who are incensed that a bunch of foreigners have come to their country “to tell them what to do.” That is an understandable sentiment and those individuals may want to kill whales just to spite us. That, of course, is an immature view, but nonetheless a deadly one.

But there are other citizens here who are finally asking if it is really necessary to kill whales. Some are wondering if they want to be seen by the world in the same light as the dolphin killers in Taiji, Japan. Prospective tourists and trade partners are watching the Faroe Islands to see what the people there will decide to do. Sea Shepherd will tell the story. It is up to the Faroese people what this story will be.

Scott West
On the Ground in the Faroe Islands
Operation GrindStop 2014
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

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