Hunting whales for food is a tradition as old as the islands have been inhabited.
There's not much agriculture in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago in the North Atlantic, roughly equidistant from Norway, Iceland, and Scotland. Aside from the sheep that freely roam the fjords and a few native vegetables, the Faroese have always relied on the surrounding sea as a source of fish, seabirds, and the pilot whales they slaughter in a hunt known as the grindadráp, or grind.
"Grind," which rhymes with wind, is Faroese for pilot whale, and can refer to the event of the whale slaughter, the whale meat, or the whales themselves. Hunting whales for food is a tradition as old as the islands have been inhabited. But in the past few decades, animal activists have taken issue with the grind, despite Faroese insistence that it is sustainable and humane.
Activists have conducted extensive campaigns in the islands to attempt to stop the grind. Most vocal among them has been Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation society founded in 1977 by Paul Watson. Sea Shepherd is a global organization—though they call themselves a movement—gaining traction among high-profile animal rights activists such as Pamela Anderson, who dropped by the Faroes during their 2014 campaign to show her support.
The Faroes, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark, have a population of close to 50,000 people. Thanks to its television and social media presence, Sea Shepherd's supporters number many multitudes higher; Watson's Facebook page has more than 500,000 likes on its own.
During the summer of 2014, hundreds of Sea Shepherd volunteers from around the world descended upon the Faroe Islands to attempt to stop any whale hunting from taking place. They called their campaign Operation Grindstop, and shipped in boats and camping vans, stationing themselves at lookout points around the island. The volunteers sat on the hills, all wearing black sweatshirts emblazoned with Sea Shepherd's skull and crossbone logo, day in and day out, watching the sea for whales. Their stated aim was to physically interfere should a grind occur.
The Faroe Islands is a place where no one locks their doors. There's almost no crime. People leave their babies unattended outside in strollers when they go shopping. Everyone seems to know everyone. In such a small place, the presence of such a visually prominent group of activists was very strongly felt.
The Faroese claim that the pilot whale hunt is humane and sustainable. The average take is around 800 whales a year, although that varies widely year to year. Still, a 2007 survey found that the pilot whale population in the Iceland-Faroes region is around 128,000. The Faroese argue that an annual catch of less than 1 percent of the population is sustainable, although some parties, including ASCOBANS countries, are skeptical.
It's impossible to look at the grind without looking at Faroese life as a whole. The Faroese maintain a close contact with nature, and have no illusions about where their food comes. They take pride in killing the animals they eat themselves, and say that those who live in big cities are out of touch with how their food is produced.
Sea Shepherd says the Faroese already live a modern lifestyle, with products imported from around the world, and therefore do not need whales to survive. But the Faroese maintain that if they were to abandon their local forms of sustenance, they would lose all self-sufficiency, a demand they feel is unfair for outsiders to impose upon them.
But despite defending their way of life, the Faroe Islands do not exist in a vacuum, and the whale hunt is subject to forces greater than activism that are changing the face of the planet.
Pilot whales are contaminated with high levels of mercury and other heavy metals thanks to industrial pollution in the world's oceans. To see how heavy metal-laden meat might be affecting the nation, Dr. Pál Weihe, head of the Faroese Department of Occupational Medicine, has conducted a 27-year-long study of the Faroese population.
In 1986 and 1987, he established a cohort of unborn babies, and has followed them throughout their lives, examining them for effects of mercury from eating grind. In a 2012 paper, Weihe detailed how he found effects on the memory, reaction time, and language skills of subjects who had been exposed to higher levels of mercury in comparison to those who had not.
"The latest analyses show that the mercury concentration of pilot whale remains high with an average of about 2 micrograms per gram," he and co-author Høgni Debes Joensen wrote. "In the EU, the highest limit value of 1 microgram per gram is only applicable to the most contaminated species of fish. This limit is exceeded by most pilot whales."
By those calculations, a 70kg man could eat just 3.5 grams of pilot whale per day before exceeding mercury limits. Weihe recommended that the Faroese stop eating pilot whale meat and blubber, and he himself does not consume grind any longer.
Though some say this spells the end of the grind, the Faroese stand by their way of life. Despite conflicting with environmentalist idealism, the age-old hunting tradition endures in an increasingly modernizing world.