Thanks to the publicity generated by the 2009 documentary The Cove, most people know of the dolphin hunts that take place every year on the coasts of Japan. Around 20,000 dolphins are killed as a result of this annual slaughter, while still more are sold into captivity. However, while the Japanese dolphin drive may be the world’s most infamous, it is certainly not unique. In fact, the Japanese dolphin hunts are pre-dated by another, similar tradition that takes place each year in the Faroe Islands, a group of islands in the North Atlantic that together constitute a self-governing nation within the realm of Denmark. Every year, an average of 800 long-finned pilot whales are killed on Faroese shores, as part of a tradition whose roots are almost as old as the islands themselves.
Like killer whales, pilot whales are deceptively named. They belong the Delphinidae family, and so are more accurately classified as dolphins. Several archaeological digs have found that pilot-whale meat has contributed to the diet of the Faroese people since the time of the Vikings, while official records for dolphin hunting in the Faroes date back to 1584. On the islands, the act of hunting whales is referred to as the grindadráp, or the grind. Unlike the Japanese whale hunt, the grind has no official season; it can occur any time a pod of pilot whales is spotted within easy reach of the shore. Traditionally, however, the animals are most prevalent in Faroese waters between July and September, and August is considered the peak grind season. The process of the hunt is similar, at least superficially, to the dolphin slaughters in Japan.
Once a pod of pilot whales is spotted close to land, the spotter boat reports the find to the local chief of police, who must give permission for the dolphins to be driven ashore. Once permission is given, other boats gather to help herd the pod to the nearest and most suitable of the Faroe Islands’ 23 authorized whaling bays. When dolphins have been successfully corralled in the bay, members of the community wade into the shallow water and drag them onto the beach, using a blunt hook inserted into the animal’s blowhole. Once the dolphins are ashore, licensed whale killers use a slim lance to sever their spinal cords. Japanese dolphin hunters have recently adopted this method, claiming it is a humane alternative to the traditional practice of slitting the dolphins’ throats.
Can a slaughter ever be considered “humane?”
The question of whether or not the grind is “humane” is contentious. The official website of Faroese whaling claims that efforts have been made in recent decades to minimize animals’ suffering. The traditional whaling spear was outlawed 30 years ago, and has since been replaced with a regulation spinal lance designed by a Faroese veterinarian to ensure greater accuracy and a quick death. Similarly, the blowhole hook of the past was sharp and pointed, while today’s regulation hook is rounded, a concession that’s supposed to make the process of being hauled ashore less painful. Faroese animal welfare law dictates that dolphin pods must be dispatched as quickly as possible to minimize suffering, and as such entire pods are allegedly slaughtered within five to 10 minutes. In an attempt to regulate the grind, those who wish to take part in the slaughter must, as of May 2015, have a license, and must enroll in a course that teaches participants how to use the new killing tools.
Understandably, conservationists argue that there is no humane way to kill an animal as intelligent and socially complex as the pilot whale. Like most cetaceans, pilot whales develop strong familial bonds, and the mass slaughter of the grind therefore inevitably causes not only physical pain, but also extreme emotional suffering. During the hunt, the water of the whaling bays turns crimson with blood, and family members must watch as their relatives are butchered before them. The grind is about much more than the moment of actual death — the herding process, the forced stranding, the chaos and the bloodshed all cause acute stress and fear for the dolphins involved.
There are also doubts as to how ‘humane’ the regulation killing tools really are. An analysis of the killing methods used in Taiji, Japan by veterinarian Andrew Butterworth suggests that the dolphins suffer significantly as a result of spinal severing, the same method used in the Faroe Islands. The results of his study claim that rather than causing instant death, severing the spinal cord simply causes paralysis. According to Butterworth, the dolphins then suffer a prolonged and agonizing death as a result of blood loss and the failure of respiratory and motor function. “[This method] does not conform to any recognized mechanism for bringing about death in accepted humane slaughter or euthanasia practice in large animals,” he says.
Is the grind sustainable?
According to the Faroese government, scientists estimate that the pilot whale population in the eastern North Atlantic numbers some 778,000 individuals. As such, the average kill of 800 animals per year is claimed to be sustainable, representing just 0.01 percent of the population. However, the long-finned pilot while is classified as Data Deficient by the IUCN, meaning that not enough is known about the species to determine its conservation status. It therefore cannot be said with any certainty whether or not the grind is sustainable. It should be noted that although pilot whales are the target species of the Faroese grind, other species are often killed during the hunts. Most notably, these include bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and even the Risso’s dolphin despite the fact that the latter species is protected under Faroese law.
What is the purpose of the grind?
The Faroese cite two main reasons for the continuing dolphin hunts; first, that the hunting and consumption of pilot whales is a centuries-old tradition, embedded in the culture of the Faroe Islands. The grind involves entire communities, and the Faroese argue that the tradition helps the islanders maintain their cultural identity. The other main reason for continuing the grind is as a food source. In the past, the people of the isolated Faroe Islands depended on the meat for survival; today, the meat is still shared equally amongst those involved in each hunt. The grind is not commercialized, and as such provides the community with meat that can be dried, salted, boiled or fried. Pilot whale meat is a good source of protein, and has been proven to be high in iron and other essential vitamins.
But the Faroe Islands are no longer isolated as they once were. There are supermarkets throughout the archipelago, and dolphin meat has consequently become a delicacy rather than a staple. Research also shows that as a result of marine pollution, pilot whale meat contains dangerous levels of contaminants, including mercury and PCBs. The Faroese Food and Veterinary Authority recommends that adult islanders eat no more than one meal of pilot whale meat per month, and that the meat should be avoided completely by pregnant women and indeed any woman who hopes to conceive in the future. The consumption of meat contaminated by high levels of mercury can lead to a host of medical problems, including infertility, impaired memory and communication skills and Parkinson’s disease.
The future of the grind
There are significant differences between the dolphin drives of Japan and the grind of the Faroe Islands. In Japan, tradition is often cited as the inspiration for slaughter, but in reality the main incentive is the income generated by the sale of selected dolphins to aquaria around the world. In the Faroes, the killings are inspired not by money, but by culture. The Japanese hunts occur on a much larger scale than those in the Faroes, but are restricted to a specific season, while those in the Faroes can happen at any time of the year. There are similarities between the two, also, including the methods used and the passion with which both cultures defend their rights to continue hunting dolphins despite international pressure and the attempted obstruction of conservation groups.
In both cases, it’s worldwide awareness that’s most likely to put a stop to the killing. Awareness raised by documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish has helped decrease the popularity of captive dolphin shows, which will in turn impact the future of dolphin drives in Japan. In the Faroes, demand for whale meat has plummeted as a result of research showing the dangers of its consumption. Ironically, the food that once sustained the islanders is now poisoning them, a fact that allows for hope that the grind may soon end.