The majority of North Atlantic cetaceans give birth to their calves in the warm waters of the equator before migrating past the Faroe Islands to feed in the nutrient rich waters of Svalbard and the Arctic. Long-finned pilot whales pass by the North Atlantic islands while pursuing squid, their main source of food.
Recorded first as early as 1584, the Faroese developed a method of whaling that involves stranding entire pods of small cetaceans on certain designated beaches. When a pod of cetaceans, primarily long- and short-finned pilot whales (bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic white-beaked dolphins, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoises can also be taken) are spotted offshore, the the grindadráp or grind ("pilot whale" in Faroese is "grindhval") commences.
The local community heads out in small boats loaded with stones, hooks, ropes, and knives. Once they’ve approached the pod, the boats form a small half-circle behind the dolphins. Small rocks attached to lines are thrown into the water to create a wall of bubbles to reflect the sonar of the pilot whale. The cetaceans interpret the bubbles as a cliff wall that they must steer away from – because of this, the small boats are able to herd the cetaceans towards a low-lying shore. As the pod approaches land, the boats continue to harass and frighten the mammals until they’re washed up on the shore. Once beached, a knife is used to cut through the veins and arteries that supply blood to the pilot whales head. Some pilot whales suffer for as much as 30 seconds while others can take up to four minutes to die.
Those pilot whales that do not wash ashore have a gaff hook beaten into their blowhole and are then pulled ashore by rope. As a result of public pressure campaigns spearheaded by groups like Sea Shepherd in the 1980s, the gaff hook no longer resembles its sharper predecessor, but the blocking of the cetacean’s airway is incredibly painful and results in panic and injury. The fear and suffering is no less mitigated by a sea that quickly turns red with blood in a bizarre ritual reminiscent of Roman gladiatorial violence. As the entire human community partakes in the blood orgy, the whale meat is divided up among the locals although many times the whale meat is simply left to rot on the beach. Up to 1,000 pilot whales are killed annually in this manner, primarily in the months of July and August.
The long-finned pilot whale is listed in Appendix II of Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and also on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that although the species is not necessarily threatened with extinction, it may become so unless hunting is closely controlled. There is no information on global trends in population, and with a wide range of threats to populations, from military sonar to entanglement in fishing gear, it is believed that populations could face a reduction of 30% over three generations.
In addition, the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Berne Convention) classifies the long-finned pilot whale (and all cetaceans) as “strictly protected” under Appendix II, prohibiting their slaughter within the European Union. While the Faroe Islands are not a member of the European Union, they remain a Danish Protectorate. In other words, even though the Faroes are self-governing, Denmark controls the police, defense, foreign policy, and the currency. All trade with EU countries is handled through the Danish foreign ministry. The primary reason for the Faroes abstaining from joining the EU was in an effort to prevent the EU from meddling in their fishing policies.
It is the position of Sea Shepherd that Denmark fails to fulfill its obligations under the Berne Convention for a number of reasons:
- The Faroe Islanders, who are Danish nationals, deliberately kill protected species that are listed under Appendix II of the Berne Convention, to which Denmark is a signatory state.
- While the Faroe Islanders claim that that the grind is not a commercial hunt, grind meat is sold in supermarkets, hotels and restaurants, contributing to a trade that is even marketed to other European visitors to the Islands.
- The long-finned pilot whale passes through Faroes waters on an annual migration route to feed in Arctic waters. A single grind can completely decimate, and sometimes completely eradicate, an entire pod. This slaughter occurs in, and around, Danish territorial lands.
North Atlantic pilot whales, because of their position in the food chain as an apex predator, are poisoned by large amounts of environmental pollutants. Meat resulting from the grind contains high amounts of arsenic, cadmium, zinc, lead, copper mercury, and selenium. In 2008, the chief medical officers of the Islands, Pal Weihe and Hogni Joensen, declared that pilot whale meat contains too much mercury and other contaminants to be safe for human consumption. Mercury poisoning has been found among Islanders resulting in “damage to fetal neural development, high blood pressure, and impaired immunity in children, as well as increased rates of Parkinson’s disease, circulatory problems and possibly infertility in adults”.
Unfortunately, the government of the Faroe Islands has so far failed to adopt the recommendations of its own scientific experts. Instead, in June 2011, it released guidelines recommending that a maximum of one meal per month should be sourced from pilot whale meat. However, if all the meat and blubber of the 1,300 whales killed in 2013 was consumed, consumption levels would far exceed even the weakened levels recommended by the Faroese government.