By Erwin Vermeulen

The grind, purported to be an ancient, non-commercial, cultural tradition that supplies food for the population, has been condemned by environmental and animal rights groups from around the world. Defenders assert that it is sustainable, no meat is wasted and that the hunt is well regulated.

A grind, or whale drive, is initiated in the Faroe Islands when pilot whales or dolphins are sighted offshore. The animals are herded into a bay with boats and jet skis and pulled up onto the beach with a hook in the blowhole. Their spinal cords are then cut with a knife or lance. Once they are dead, their carcasses are flensed and the meat prepared for distribution.

An Ancient Tradition

Viking age (around AD 825), but the earliest archaeological evidence dates to the late 10th and 11th centuries. Although some claim that cetaceans were part of the diet from the beginning, zoo archaeological evidence at the Faroese National Museum from a ninth to early 13th century site near Sandur (a grind bay today), tells a different story. The evidence shows that in the earliest period the diet consisted of birds, shellfish, fish and domesticated animals, shifting towards a predominantly fish-based diet in the latter part of the period. Nowhere is there any mention of marine mammal remains.

Grind catch statistics exist since 1584, unbroken from 1709 to today, showing an annual average catch of 850 pilot whales. Pilot whales are not the only cetacean species hunted. Four species of dolphin and harbour porpoises can be hunted too. There are no catch statistics for dolphins until the early 1990s, raising questions as to whether killing dolphins is “part of the tradition” and challenging the reliability of statistics.

Conservation Issues

Long-finned pilot whales are currently listed as “Data Deficient” on the IUCN Red List. Still, the IUCN, IWC, ICES and NAMMCO have concluded that with an estimated subpopulation size of 778,000 in the central and eastern North Atlantic, the Faroese catch is probably sustainable. These estimates are from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Long-finned pilot whales are subjected to a number of threats: Accidental by-catch in fishing nets and entanglement, overfishing of their prey, pollution, anthropogenic sounds and climate change are all factors leading to their declining populations. IUCN reports that due to these threats a 30-percent reduction in the global population of long-finned pilot whales over the past 72 years “cannot be ruled out”.

Pilot whales are highly intelligent, self-aware animals with complex, social cultures. © Bob Talbot/ Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Pilot whales are highly intelligent, self-aware animals with complex, social cultures. © Bob Talbot/ Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


International Law

Pilot whales are classified as “strictly protected” under the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats. No country that wants to join the EU is allowed to kill whales or dolphins.

In October 1977, Denmark became a party to CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). When ratifying, Denmark informed CITES that the convention would only become applicable to the Faroe Islands when relevant legislation had come into place there. The Faroese authorities have stated that they do not see that CITES can contribute anything positive for the Faroe Islands.

While the Faroes are under the sovereignty of Denmark, they are not an EU territory, yet three percent of their GDP consists of annual subsidies from Denmark, which is part of the EU. Denmark is a party to the Bern Convention, Bonn Convention and ASCOBANS – all agreements that protect cetaceans.

Fit for Food?

Not according to the scientists. In November 2008, the Faroese Chief Medical Officers Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen announced that pilot whale meat and blubber contains too much mercury, PCBs and DDT derivatives to be safe for human consumption. Dioxin has now been added to the list and the latest Faroese dietary recommendations are clear on the necessity of restricting or eliminating the consumption of whale meat and blubber.

Almost everybody you speak to in the islands will admit that nowadays there is also no need to kill whales for food as the era of isolation is a thing of the past. The Faroese have a high standard of living and the supply of farmed animal products in the supermarkets and restaurants is similar to that of other developed and Western countries.


As a result of recommendations to limit or avoid the consumption of pilot whale meat, it is suspected that the meat that is distributed is not necessarily eaten and that waste is now part of the reality of the hunt.

Furthermore, on occasion, whole pods of whales have been killed but their meat and blubber never processed. In Vidvik, November 2010, 62 pilot whales were driven onto the beach at dusk. It was too dark by the time they had all been killed and so the flensing had to wait until the next morning. By then, the corpses had already started to rot and most of the whales were discarded. This is not an isolated incident.

Regulated Suffering

The hunt is claimed to be highly regulated and death supposedly comes quickly to the animals. In 2013, the Minister of Fisheries announced that as of May 2015 all persons taking part in the slaughter must take a course in the laws and correct procedures relating to the grinds, and possess the relevant licence to kill.

One of the proposed improvements is the spinal lance. Although a Faroese invention, the spinal lance “pithing” method was first introduced in Taiji, Japan.

The new method involves driving a metal rod into the dolphins’ neck behind the blowhole to sever the spinal cord.

Undercover footage of striped dolphins being killed this way was analysed by veterinarian Andrew Butterworth and his team, and the results were published. The report states: “The method induces paraplegia (paralysis of the body) and death through trauma and gradual blood loss. This killing method does not conform to the recognised requirement for ‘immediate insensibility’ and would not be tolerated or permitted in any regulated slaughterhouse process in the developed world… The process of spinal transection carried out in a fully conscious large animal is likely to be profoundly distressing, traumatic and painful, and creates unnecessary suffering and distress because a complete transection is difficult to achieve.”

The sea stained red with the blood of a whole pod of pilot whales. © Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

The sea stained red with the blood of a whole pod of pilot whales. © Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Jústines Olsen, Senior Veterinarian in the Faroe Islands and the propagator of the new spinal lance killing method, admits in his paper Killing Methods And Equipment In The Faroese Pilot Whale Hunt, “As the slaughter is done manually it cannot, by definition, be instantaneous, which is the ideal in all forms of slaughter, including traditional slaughterhouse methods as well as hunting.”

The implication is that there are no humane ways to kill a highly intelligent, socially complex marine creature in the wild. In Klaksvík, July 19, 2010, 228 pilot whales were driven ashore, despite the beach only having the capacity to hold 100 animals. Again it was dusk, and the lack of light combined with far too many animals resulted in a two-hour orgy of blood and su
ffering. On July 30, when 267 pilot whales were driven into the bay of Fuglafjørður, it was reported that only four men were available to kill the panicking animals. For more than 90 minutes, they were held in the bay with boat engine noise and blowhole hooks until they were all slaughtered.

More than Monitoring

Sea Shepherd has been leading regular missions against the slaughter of whales and dolphins in the Faroe Islands since the summer of 1983. We are commonly asked why the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society does not concentrate on more immediate and pressing threats to ocean ecosystems. Other than the anti-whaling and anti-dolphin slaughter campaigns in the Southern Ocean, Taiji and the Faroes, Sea Shepherd also works on conservation enforcement in the Galápagos,, studies toxins in the Gulf of Mexico, patrols against illegal fishing around the world and is preparing for a campaign tackling the issue of ocean plastics.

This year Sea Shepherd launched the most wide-ranging and longest Faroe Islands campaign in Sea Shepherd’s history – Operation GRINDSTOP 2014. Only one grind took place this year before Sea Shepherd’s volunteers arrived. Pilot whales have been sighted during our presence in the Faroes, and word has it that grinds have been called by the foremen and then cancelled by the authorities. Our presence is saving lives and that is what Sea Shepherd does.

This article first featured in SD OCEAN PLANET “Cold & Fresh”