By Ashley Boreckyi
Thrashing wildly in blood red water, dozens of exhausted pilot whales endure a long and tortured death at the hands of hunters, hacking at their sides. Once they are dead – which may take up to several minutes – blunt knives are used to hook the whales by their blowholes and haul them to shore. Here, their lifeless bodies are dismembered and distributed among the crowd. This is not a scene from a horror film. It’s what happens in the Faroe Islands in an annual event called ‘the Grind’.
Grindadráp, or ‘Grind’, is the name given to the annual hunts held in the Faroe Islands, a small self-governing archipelago which is part of Denmark. In the early months of the year pods of long-finned pilot whales swim close to shore. Once spotted, word spreads quickly and island members gather to drive the whales into the bay and slaughter them for food. It is a tradition that dates back to the 1500s.
Despite most of the world implementing anti-whaling laws the Grind remains legal.
While data is yet to be released from the grinds of 2016, numbers produced from 2015 cast a grim picture. Of the seven drives held, 508 pilot whales were slaughtered. However these numbers don’t include other marine life such as dolphins, which often become caught in the fray and end up as collateral damage.
As people in the Faroe Islands prepare for the commencement of this year’s hunting season, there is mounting criticism from groups on both sides of the issue.
Supporters of the grind are ardent in their defence of the custom. They argue the hunts are legal, and the whales are used for food which is a cultural and necessary staple in a nation with long winters and harsh conditions. They argue pilot whales are not endangered and it is no different from slaughtering sheep or other livestock, and those who disagree are hypocrites. Lastly, its argued that aside from food the hunts are about preserving tradition.
Critics of the grind are equally as passionate about what they call a cruel, outdated and unnecessary practice. Pilot whales, they claim, are sensitive, social and communicative creatures with high cognitive ability and a deep sense of loyalty. This loyalty can be seen during the slaughters, as whales refuse to leave fellow pod members behind during the hunts.
Islanders looking to debunk activists’ arguments say the grinds are no different than killing livestock for food. However this is not a fair comparison. Most farming industries are regulated and there are practices in place to ensure the killing of any farm animal is as quick, stress free and humane as possible. While the grinds do have some regulations in place, including the recent review of permitted weapons, the ultimate act is not quick or stress free, and is certainly not humane.
One Faroe Islander perhaps puts it best: “…it’s not like farming. A sheep you can put a bullet between the eyes, it doesn’t feel anything. You can’t kill a whale like that, it takes hours…”
Another argument against the grinds is increasing health concerns associated with eating whale meat. Organic pollutants and high levels of mercury and PCBs are now being found in whale blubber, making it almost unfit for human consumption. In fact, Faroe Islands’ Chief Medical Officer Pal Weihe has sternly warned against the consumption of pilot whale meat, finding prolonged consumption can lead to skeletal abnormalities, reproductive issues, and neurological problems.
The Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority subsequently released national guidelines advising adults only eat one meal containing it per month, and girls and women not at all until they have finished giving birth to children.
Many Faroese point to the fact that the hunt is legal, however this classification is questioned by many animal protection groups. Regardless of its legality, we have seen many times throughout history that just because something is legal does not necessarily make it morally justified.
With the majority of nations, welfare groups, even members of the Faroe Island community decreeing the hunts cruel, the time has come to banish the archaic Grindadráp to the history books.