The Grindadráp - A tradition or a bloodbath?

Environment | Oceans

By Laura Butula, Kingfisher Writer

Published October 13th 2021

The Grindadráp is a deeply rooted part of Faroese culture; however, it has recently received plenty of criticism from international audiences due to a new record hunt where 1,428 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were beached and slaughtered.

It was a highly shocking and disturbing Sunday evening on September 12th, 2021, when 1,428 Atlantic white-Sided Dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) were forcefully steered into the shallows of Skalabotnur beach in Eysturov—the second largest region of the Faroe Islands—where they were eventually slaughtered.

Witnesses described the scene as it unfolded, seeing the heavy-duty massacre produce blood-filled waters and a sense of bewilderment. Although the Faroese locals are familiar with this ‘drill’, one can only imagine how shaken the island tourists were feeling.

It seems that many of us were unaware of the historic occasions of the Faroe Islands until the events of the dolphin bloodbath made international headlines. To clarify, the Faroe Islands are a prosperous archipelago belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark; however, the islands are not part of the European Union and therefore have sovereignty regarding some fields of policy making, such as the management and conservation of marine resources.

Múlafossur, Gasádalur in the Faroe Islands. | Rogério Toledo / Unsplash

‘Many of us were unaware of the historic occasions of the Faroe Islands until the events of the dolphin bloodbath made international headlines.’

Notably, the nation follows the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14, which aims to ensure sustainable development by the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans, seas, and marine resources. Nonetheless, progress towards this mission is undeniably impacted by Faroese history and culture.

As part of a time-honoured tradition from the Viking Age, the action of beaching and killing marine mammals for food remains a custom for many of the Faroese population. This practice, known as ‘the grind’ (Grindadráp in Faroese), has recently received international attention and stimulated heated debates regarding animal welfare and sustainability.

Of course, this is not the first time that the hunting of cetaceans has been strongly opposed by external parties; for example, the dolphin drive hunt in Taiji, Japan was publicly criticized in the 2009 documentary The Cove . Indeed, the night of September 12th revived a long-standing discussion concerning the justifications and morality of hunting wild cetaceans in the Faroe Islands.

‘This is not the first time that the hunting of cetaceans has been strongly opposed by external parties.’

Regardless, the Faroese have been hunting marine mammals for centuries, particularly focusing their energy on long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) due to their high quantity of blubber from each individual of the species.

Although Pilot Whales are the main ‘prize’ of the Grindadráp, other species have fallen victim to the hands of the Faroese, including the Atlantic white-sided dolphin. Official records state that species can be unintentionally beached as a result of steering untargeted animals towards shores and because individuals sometimes integrate with a pod of pilot whales.

An average of 600 pilot whales and 250 white-sided dolphins are caught annually (The Government of the Faroe Islands, 2021). However, a study from 2017 calculated that approximately 69 white-sided dolphins are hunted annually for the Grindadráp (Bloch and Mikkelsen, 2017). Is this an indication that the average catch of white-sided dolphins is increasing, or does this simply involve a difference in data collection and analysis?

‘An average of 600 Pilot Whales and 250 White-sided Dolphins are caught annually.’

Research should focus on questions as such by conducting temporal analyses of species population trends in the Faroe Islands. To better grasp the statistics of an average Grindadráp event, perhaps researchers should also explore the central features of this historic hunt, which is markedly different from other drive hunts.

The Grindadráp is distinctive for several reasons. First, it involves the engagement of local residents rather than authorities. Second, hunts are mainly passive, meaning that they are only started if a pod is spotted from the mainland. Third, the public is aware that hunts are happening—whether individuals support or oppose hunts is another point entirely. Finally, the meat and blubber of the catch is distributed freely to participants of the hunt and Faroese locals around the nation.

After the Grindadráp. | Erik Christensen / Wikimedia Commons

Specifically, a Grindadráp involves spotting a pod; organizing necessary gear; sailing out with speed boats and jet skis; steering the pod into one of the 26 designated killing bays; hooking the blowholes of the animals with a blásturongul (a type of hook); dragging the animals onto shore; severing the spinal cord with a mønustingari (a type of spear); transferring the carcasses to the harbour; cutting the meat and blubber off the carcasses; discarding the ‘unusable’ remains.

Reflecting on the routine and origins of the Grindadráp, one principal aspect initially justified hunting: a food source. Since the first settlements in the Faroe Islands, locals have had to search for alternative diets. This is because the regional topography and soil structure cannot support the growth and preservation of crops; therefore, there was never productive agricultural land and today, key food products must be imported from neighbouring countries (Mamzer, 2021).

‘One principal aspect initially justified hunting activity: a food source.’

The Faroese living in the Viking Era therefore opted for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, where food is obtained through hunting rather than by agriculture and livestock raising. Because long-finned pilot whales are resident to the Faroe Islands and populations are abundant, they became the prime hunting target. Initially, the blubber of pilot whales was not only consumed, but was also used to make products such as lamp oil.

Today, the Faroese government and locals rationalise hunts with four points, arguing that the Grindadráp (i) preserves Faroese tradition and identity, (ii) encourages community involvement, (iii) supports the economy and (iv) is a sustainable method of gathering food for human consumption and distribution.

A slaughter of a long-finned pilot whale. | Laura Bâlc / Flickr

Moreover, the Faroese government reasons that the hunting of pilot whales has been regulated by law since 1832 (ibid.). In fact, it was not until the evening of September 12th that the Faroese government decided to re-evaluate regional hunting. This political verdict represents how the record hunt was both an eye-opener and an indicator for change.

‘The record hunt was both an eye-opener and an indicator for change.’

The central arguments against the Grindadráp and those that advocate for change consider the biological and social features of affected species, including long-finned pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Pilot whales leave a remarkable first impression. Males can reach a length of 8.5 meters and weigh 3500 kilograms, while females can be six meters in length and weigh 2500 kilograms. These stunning members of the Delphinidae family are known to be extremely social creatures, forming close-knit pods of approximately 10 to 20 individuals.

Occasionally, units of several hundreds of pilot whales are found. Within these groups, female members in menopause are known to pass on knowledge regarding ecosystems and associated threats. Keeping in mind that whales and dolphins are k-selected species (those characterized by relatively low reproduction rates, slow maturation and long life spans), it is not easy for these species to recover quickly after a hunt.

A pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. | Batwrangler / Flickr

As previously mentioned, pilot whales can form mixed-species pods with Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Fortunately, the latter species is currently classified as ‘Least Concern’ on the IUCN Red List; however, this global scope assessment was last measured on April 1st, 2019, suggesting that an updated and local analysis for the population trend of these dolphins should be conducted.

White-sided dolphins are relatively small, reaching a maximum length and weight of 2.7 meters and 229 kilograms, respectively. Like pilot whales, individuals are very interdependent, for reasons such as predator avoidance, collaborative foraging, and shared care of calves.

‘Individuals are very interdependent, for reasons such as predator avoidance, collaborative foraging, and shared care of calves.’

Atlantic white-sided dolphins. | Claudine Lamothe / Flickr

Based on the social behaviour of pilot whales and white-sided dolphins, one can argue that the Faroese government and locals whitewash the impacts of the Grindadráp. As mentioned above, both species have intricate communication skills and can identify surrounding pressures and threats.

When steered into bays by screaming locals and loud boat engines, every individual of the pod is killed, including pregnant females, juveniles and calves. Those ‘lucky’ ones that get away from the ruthless blásturongul hook are left swimming in bloody waters alone, feeling incredibly vulnerable and disoriented without their family members.

The caught whales or dolphins are jabbed with a blowhole hook and dragged onto shores, which undoubtedly triggers physical pain for both species, which are incredibly sensitive to touch. Some studies have heavily criticized this blásturongul hooking technique because it can cause severe lesions and bleeding in the blowhole area and even in the nasal cavity.

Moreover, research has demonstrated that the ‘humane’ and ‘quick’ blásturongul hook can induce paraplegia (body paralysis) and a traumatic death through gradual exsanguination (bleeding out). Furthermore, conscious pod members directly perceive these horrific and stressful incidents.

‘The ‘humane’ and ‘quick’ blásturongul hook can induce paraplegia (body paralysis) and a traumatic death.’

The pain and stress experienced by pilot whales and white-sided dolphins during the Grindadráp is increasingly investigated through research; more studies are providing evidence that proves how such events are barbaric and inhumane from an animal welfare perspective. So, is there really any justification for the Grindadráp other than the preservation of culture?

Bearing in mind that the Faroese government has decided to reassess the Grindadráp after the record hunt of September 12th, there is little doubt that some form of change is forthcoming. In fact, this is the time for cause groups and campaigners to apply pressure and instigate amendments. Correspondingly, future studies should investigate the extent of human knowledge and awareness regarding cetacean social structure.

‘The Faroese government has decided to reassess the Grindadráp after the record hunt of September 12th.’

An exploration into how much people know about the intelligence and social routine of pilot whales and white-sided dolphins could provide valuable insights about conflicting perspectives on the Grindadráp.

As humans, we are entitled to our own values, attitudes, and traditions. However, we are also encouraged to continually explore those that differ from our own. Sometimes, we respect culture too much to change it. Other times, we learn from personal histories and decide that culture should be changed.

‘Sometimes, we respect culture too much to change it.’

In the eyes of many Faroese locals, the hunt of September 12th was one of these instances where cultural traditions should be called into question. In the case of validating the Grindadráp, humans will have to share morals and consider sustainability objectives to ultimately communicate, cooperate and care—just as pilot whales and white-sided dolphins do.

Featured Image: Ingbla | Wikimedia Commons

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