Faroe Islands and the thorny issue of whaling


When I mentioned that I was going to the Faroe Islands last week, several people immediately asked me: “Isn’t that the place where they kill whales?”. Others directly asked whether I would be reporting on the whale hunts. These tiny islands in the North Atlantic, blessed with stunning scenery and an incredible number of sea birds, suffer from an international image problem due to their centuries-old taste for whale meat and the manner in which they go about catching their favourite dish.

The subject of whaling in the Faroe Islands has attracted much international controversy and although I was on the islands for a general travel feature for a UK magazine (and as a result had most of my trip funded by Visit Faroe Islands), I was also curious to speak to people on the islands to learn more about the grindadrap, the whale hunts which are part of Faroese tradition and which have provoked such global outrage.

What goes on?

Undisputed facts are at something of a premium given the extremely polarised views on this subject and whatever anyone writes on the topic almost always attracts vitriol from one side or the other. While I can’t claim any in-depth knowledge on the topic from a single short visit, I did at least have the chance to learn something about the hunts, even if I didn’t witness one myself.

The grindadrap follows a strictly-regulated process, with Faroese law stating clearly what is and isn’t permissible. When a pod of whales is spotted the sighting is reported to the local sheriff, who makes a decision whether or not a hunt will take place. This is based on several factors, such as the ease of driving the pod to one of the approved beaches and the length of time since the last hunt in that area; in other words, is it time for the community to get a fresh supply of whale meat? If the grindadrap is approved, a flotilla  of small boats sets off to drive the pod of whales towards the shore, using methods such as banging the sides of the boats to push them towards the shallow water. Once beached they are then slaughtered by a group of men (traditionally it’s only the men who take on the task). The whale meat is then divided among the local community, with everyone getting a carefully measured share regardless of whether they took part in the hunt.

In the ten years between 2003 and 2012, 79 such hunts took place, resulting in 6,160 whales being killed and 47,202 skins (divisions of meat) being given out (statistics from Statistics Faroe Islands). The numbers have dropped in recent decades and there are well-documented fears about the health risks of eating whale meat due to its high level of mercury and other toxins, although I didn’t find any evidence that these two facts are linked.

Arguments for and against

The whale hunt is a wholly non-commercial activity, with meat freely divided among the local population and hunts only taking place when a community’s supplies are low. Most observers, even those vehemently opposed to the whale hunts, agree that with estimated pilot whale populations of around 700,000 the activity is sustainable, with around 0.1% of the population killed each year.

Pictures of rows of dead whales and sea water red from the bloodiness of the grindadrap have led to worldwide anger and calls for tourism boycotts of the Faroe Islands by activists. The fact that whales are considered to be one of the most intelligent sentient creatures and the fact that entire pods are killed has only fuelled the outrage.

The Faroese in turn defend the grindadrap in several ways. Whale remains a highly popular form of meat despite the health scares; the tradition of hunting and eating pilot whales goes back for many centuries; and as a communal activity the hunts play an important part in keeping together such a closely-knit society, something which was apparent even from spending just a few days on the islands.

Of course these arguments are dismissed by the opponents. Just because something is a tradition or part of a native culture doesn’t make it right; and while the Faroese had no choice but to harvest whales in order to survive in previous centuries, that’s certainly not the case in the 21st century, especially given the associated health risks with whale meat consumption.

Then there’s the charge of double standards made against the grindadrap‘s mostly foreign detractors. I eat meat and I’m very mindful of the fact that most of the animals I consume will have suffered more and for longer than the pilot whales killed in the grindadrap. I’d feel more entitled to judge the Faroese people for the way they get their meat if I had a clear picture of how my dinner is slaughtered, but as is the case with most of us urban dwellers, I have little idea how my dinners transform from a living animal into a nicely-packed supermarket product. It’s easy to believe that our diced chicken didn’t live a hellish life in a cage and that our lamb chops wasn’t once part of one of the poor creatures packed like sardines in a vehicle for several hours before meeting its grisly end in an abattoir. Contrast that with whales who live freely and are slaughtered in a matter of seconds/minutes* (topic of much disagreement) and where the entire process is based around supplying a community with food, without any financial motives.

Eco-warriors and the future of whale hunts

The people I met in the Faroe Islands were without exception open and willing to talk about the subject of whale hunts. Many shared a deep disdain for the outrage of foreigners against the grindadrap. They believe that their opponents’ arguments are based on ignorance and hypocrisy, and to some extent I do sympathise with them. I have no desire to eat whale meat, but wonder if the people advocating boycotts of the Faroes have the same view of France (foie gras), Japan (all sorts of live snacks), most of the world (veal), China (shark’s fin soup) and pretty much anywhere if you dig deep enough (and you don’t usually have to go very deep).

The grindadrap is by carried out in open water and creates some pretty gruesome images, which do not make good PR for the Faroe Islands. But from what I gathered most of the people don’t seem to care about the international outrage; in fact the more the outside world calls them barbarians and condemns their actions, the harder people are likely to dig in their heals to continue the whale hunts and preserve what is widely seen as an important part of the Faroese identity and an unbroken link to their past.

The current Grindstop 2014 campaign by Sea Shepherd, which involves several hundred volunteers patrolling the Faroese beaches waiting to disrupt any hunts that take place, might prevent some of this year’s hunts. But in the long run, what is the likely effect of the actions of these largely well-meaning foreigners, typically coming from countries with their own deep social, ethical and environmental issues, telling people that their centuries-old way of obtaining meat is barbaric and has to stop? I suspect it’s unlikely to do anything other than wind up the majority of Faroese people and make them more determined to keep doing as they’ve always done.


To read more on the topic:

Whales and whaling in the Faroe Islands – information provided by Visit Faroe Islands (including a link to a pdf public information pamphlet on the topic)

Whaling in Brief – an official document providing an overview of Faroese Whaling

Whale Killings in the Faroe Islands – an objective view of the whale hunts by a Danish blogger.

The day I saw the sea turn red – a first-hand account by British journalist Simon Heptinstall, who saw a grindadrap take place and reported his experience.

Also listen to the excellent podcasts by Matthew Workman at Faroe Island podcasts:

The Whaling Edition and Faroese Anti-Whaling


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Freelance travel writer

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