By Sara Lannebo
After turning off the TV, I sit on the couch and stare into the wall for at least ten minutes. It is the end of the documentary Seaspiracy that has silenced me, unsure how to grasp what I just saw.
At the end of the movie, the filmmaker Ali Tabrizi travels to the Faroe Islands to witness a whale hunt. The hunt that he catches on tape shows a grueling sight: dozens of whales driven up on the beach, slashed brutally with sharp knives, suffering violent seizures. It is a sight of panic. The whales are desperately and unsuccessfully looking for a way out as they, one by one, are cut by the hunters’ long knives. The sea no longer looks like water: it is completely red.
I put down my teacup and do not know what to think. Simply witnessing it through a screen from the comfort of my own couch, I am horrified by the brutal sight and instinctively disagree with the actions of the participants. But after wiping my tears, I cannot help but feel like a hypocrite. Can someone like me, who regularly buys fish and meat from the grocery store without much knowledge or interest of where it comes from or how it has been killed, really condemn a practice that has had cultural value to a people for millennia?
The practice of whaling, also known as grindadráp, has been a tradition in the self-governing territory of the Faroe Islands since the arrival of the Vikings 800 A.D. Several different species are hunted in this event, but mostly long-finned pilot whales, who belong to the oceanic dolphin family. When hunters come across a group of whales, they surround them and drive them towards the shore.
It is non-commercial, which means the meat and blubber are distributed for free among the participants.
Once in shallow water, the whales are slaughtered by severing the spinal cord, paralyzing the animal, which subsequently dies from blood loss. It is a communal activity – many come to watch as the whales are butchered, and the meat is then distributed to the participants and other community members. Annually, around 600-700 whales are killed.
The practice has been condemned by animal rights activists from around the world. Not only is it cruel, they argue, but whales should no longer need to be hunted. In the past, the Faroese relied on whaling as a source of food, but with today’s generally high living standards of this archipelago, the food could come from elsewhere. Critics also point to instances where an unnecessary high number of animals were killed. In September 2021, 1,400 white-sided dolphins were killed in one hunt. This number greatly exceeded the normal amount, which the Faroese authorities recognized and apologized for.
Despite occasionally exceeding the usual number of animals killed, the practice is regulated and frequently examined by the authorities to ensure the hunt will not affect the status of the species. A special license is needed to participate. And long-finned pilot whales, the species that are most often hunted, are not considered to be endangered. Proponents of the grindadráp point to this to argue it is a sustainable practice. Additionally, it is non-commercial, which means the meat and blubber are distributed for free among the participants. In case there are leftovers, other community members can benefit from the supply as well.
But what do traditions justify? While there are laws in place ordering for the animals to be killed with as little suffering as possible, critics argue the hunt is brutal.
Very little, if anything, is wasted. It is also an integral part of Faroese culture and tradition: the community-driven activity has been practiced since the islands were first colonized. The culinary tradition on the islands has been shaped by the practice of whaling, and it is viewed by many as a natural source of food.
But what do traditions justify? While there are laws in place ordering for the animals to be killed with as little suffering as possible, critics argue the hunt is brutal. Pictures from it give the impression of a horrifying scene, but how much the whales actually suffer is, of course, a difficult question to answer.
After researching the grindadráp, I am unsure what to think. While my heart breaks thinking of the deep cut in the neck of the adorable pilot whale, I cannot allow myself to have an opinion on the matter. As I am unable, or perhaps ‘unwilling’ is a better word, to resist frequently indulging in both seafood and meat, blissfully ignorant about its effects on our planet, I am clearly not authorized to do any kind of ‘moral policing.’
What is clear is that the grindadráp shows the challenge of aligning tradition and modernity: concerning wrong or right, and maybe more importantly, who is to say.
Thumbnail illustration: Oscar Persson