In the far reaches of the North Atlantic Ocean, a rugged coastline emerges from churning seas. More than 300 miles from mainland Europe, the Faroe Islands are buffered by the Gulf Stream and nestled between Iceland and Norway. Shaped by the relationship Faroese settlers forged with the harsh environment surrounding them, the grit and self-reliance formerly necessary to survive are reflected in the traditions practiced to this day.
Despite the insular nature of the islands, the controversial grindadráp, a Faroese whale hunting tradition, manages to draw the unwelcome attention of those around the world. Each year, as the summer months bring near-endless hours of daylight, the beaches turn red with blood as the grindadráp commences.
The grindadráp is composed of hunts in which large pods of pilot whales are driven into coves, slaughtered, and distributed among those living on the islands. While the hunting drives occur sparingly—approximately five times throughout the season—they provide food that sustains Faroese households for the remainder of the year. The practice is reminiscent of the unforgiving environment and sparse resources Faroese settlers acclimated to in order to survive, before globalization allowed for the widespread transportation of non-native produce and livestock.
Even now, Faroese cuisine centers around seafood and lamb, two staples that have proven reliable in an untamed environment. Whale meat and blubber have persisted, too, as a novelty associated with Faroese culture.
Tinganes, a collection of cherry-red parliamentary buildings with traditional turf roofs in the capital of Tórshavn, are home to the government of the Faroe Islands. Facing the ocean, and bordered by harbors on each side, the buildings capture the almost mythical beauty that these islands have come to represent.
“In the Faroese self-identity, you will find that our history is a struggle to survive in these islands, to build a nation,” said Páll Nolsøe, communications advisor for the government of the Faroe Islands. “Perhaps you could even define us as being kind of frontier people. We have settled these islands a thousand years ago, we have defied nature, we have built a society that is deeply rooted in our self-conscience, and our food is a symbol of how we have managed to survive here.”
“When I was a child here, my grandfather told me ‘without the pilot whales, we will probably all starve to death.’” Nolsøe, like many other Faroese citizens, grew up surrounded by the practice that he describes as integral to the culture. “It’s an essential part of our food culture. Food culture is very essential to any society. There is hardly anything that defines us as much as our food: We are what we eat.”
Proponents of the grindadráp argue that the practice represents a sustainable alternative to the current carbon-intensive and industrial model of food production. “Consuming locally what is available—that’s sustainable—at least in a more global context, instead of importing meat,” said Bjarni Mikkelsen, a marine mammal biologist at the Havstovan Faroe Marine Research Institute and a member of the scientific committee in the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission (NAMMCO).
NAMMCO, an organization comprised of representatives from the nations of Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and the Faroe Islands, advises governments on whaling practices and “responsible hunting methods.” Additionally, the scientific committee works to ensure a sustainable approach to harvesting marine mammals by constructing removal numbers each season, based around the most recent scientific data on cetacean populations. “We also establish our own reference levels for removal, which are based on the latest abundance estimates that we calculate certainty around […] You model your population, and by that you advise a removal which will still [be] secure," said Mikkelsen.
The grindadráp still elicits controversy, in part due to the risks associated with the consumption of cetaceans. While many on the islands continue to incorporate pilot whale meat into their diets, the public health implications present challenges to women and children, due to high levels of methylmercury that can impact neurological development. While anthropogenic, methylmercury is a common contaminant in many marine ecosystems and is present in the bodies of marine mammals and fish alike.
“With mercury, much of it comes from the burning of coal, in particular,” said Dr. Phillipe Grandjean, environmental epidemiologist and professor at the University of Southern Denmark.
Grandjean, who has spent decades researching the intersections of public and environmental health, described the relationship between the consumption of whale meat and physical health. “[Mercury is] blown out the chimney from the coal-fired power plants, and then it rains down on the ocean, where it’s metabolized into methylmercury that gets into fish. It’s biomagnified in the marine food chain.” Once humans consume marine organisms that possess large quantities of methylmercury, such as pilot whales, these toxins can present severe health hazards for developing children and fetuses, impairing neurological development and causing birth defects and disabilities.
In addition to the public health risks, the largest attack on the grindadráp has arisen from the outcry of activists who have denounced the practice as cruel and unnecessary. “These are terribly intelligent animals, and they know what’s coming when you go out and you hunt them,” said Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project at the Earth Island Institute. “Because of that, there’s a very tremendous humane aspect to anything involving whales and dolphins,” added Palmer.
Marna Frida Olsen, a Faroese policy consultant for Whale and Dolphin Conservation also expressed her objections to the grindadráp. “You can never actually kill a whole pod of dolphins humanely.” She continued, “We know enough about dolphins to know that they are very well capable of experiencing anxiety and pain, and they are very conscious beings with strong social bonds.”
Throughout recent decades, anti-whaling protests have increased in the Faroe Islands, with international advocacy organizations such as Sea Shepard and The Dolphin Project funding initiatives to cease whaling throughout the country. However, these efforts may have aided in driving up domestic support for whaling as much as they have raised outrage across other nations.
“Some people also say that this aggressive campaigning against whaling has also perhaps caused some people to cling stronger onto our practice,” Nolsøe said. This statement mirrors the consensus on the Faroe Islands in recent years, as a 2021 poll conducted by Kringvarp Føroya, a Faroese broadcaster, asserted that 83% of Faroe Islanders were in support of pilot whale hunting.
Dr. Jóan Joensen, a former affiliated professor of culture and history at the University of the Faroe Islands, seconded Nolsøe’s statement. “I think it is people outside the Faroese that have made [whaling] a cultural identity. I think that the organizations such as Sea Shepard have united people together.”
The grindadráp remains a lively tradition in the Faroe Islands. And as discussion continues to circulate regarding the ethical, environmental, and public health implications of this practice, the strong culture that exists within the Faroe Islands stands undisputed, serving as a reminder of a nation that persevered and built its own path through history.