Researching whaling in the Faroes

During the summer of 2011, Paul Watson and the crew of Sea Shepherd traveled to the Faroe Islands along with the production team for the American documentary television series, Whale Wars. 

Watson’s stated goal was to observe, document, and—if possible—prevent the ancient Faroese practice of the grindadráp, or drive-style whaling. 

The Faroese are the last remaining Nordic culture to practice this type of whaling, though it was once common throughout the North Atlantic and beyond.  Drive-style whaling involves the coordinated efforts of whalers in dozens of boats to surround and drive a pod of whales or dolphins into a bay where the cetaceans become stranded in the shallow water.

In the Faroes, whalers on shore then wade out to the stranded whales, haul them toward the shore with ropes and hooks, and slaughter the whales with knives, either by exsanguination or by breaking the spinal cord.  Other methods of drive-style whaling have involved spearing the whales, harpooning them, capturing them in nets or even—in the case of smaller dolphins—taking them by hand! 

The Faroese, however, have long used the grindaknívur:  a traditional knife with a carved wooden handle that is as beautiful as the steel blade is sharp.  Killing whales with knives necessarily involves getting close.  One cannot remain distant, as perhaps a commercial whaler standing behind a massive harpoon gun can.  After a grindadráp, the participants are wet, their woolen sweaters speckled with blood, oil, sand, and seaweed.  They are exhausted from the labor, yet their work is hardly done. 

After the whales have been counted and evaluated, the local authorities work out a complicated algorithm by which the meat and blubber from the whales—both prized food items in the Faroes—are distributed fairly and freely among the local residents.  Those receiving the meat and blubber must harvest it themselves, so soon after the whaling is done, the butchering and carrying-off begins.  A successful grindadráp can provide an entire village with food for months. 

My research into the grindadráp seeks to understand the relationship that Faroese culture has developed with whaling, specifically in the area of resource conservation.  In the Faroe Islands, specific, dated, and spatially-coordinated records of the grindadráp go back to the 16th century. 

There are some gaps in the early records; however, from 1709 to the present, there is a continuous, unbroken account of every whale or dolphin that was taken on Faroese shores.  This incredible dataset, now under the direction of Føroya Náttúrugripasavn (the Faroese Museum of Natural History) is a treasure for any researcher interested in historical resource use and conservation. 

By analyzing the trends of the grindadráp, both spatially and over time, one can clearly see that the annual take has varied considerably from year to year.  However, for every year that no whales were taken (most recently, 2008), there is a year of bounty—1107 whales in 2010, 1738 in 1988, 4482 in 1941. 

But this dataset, extensive as it is, can only tell part of the story.  To better understand the Faroese approach to whaling and whale conservation, one must get to know the Faroese people.  Since 2005 I have been making annual trips to the Faroe Islands.  Sometimes I have stayed for just a few short weeks, other times for months. 

I ask nearly everyone I meet about the grindadráp. Recently, I surveyed over 200 students at Føroya Handilsskúli (Faroe Islands Business College) and Tekniski Skúlin í Tórshavn (Technical College of Tórshavn)—both Faroese post-secondary schools located in the capital, Tórshavn.  I asked these students about their dietary habits, their participation in the grindadráp, and their thoughts about whether it will continue into the future. 

Currently there is much research being done on the human health effects of eating meat and blubber from whales taken in the grindadráp.  While further research is necessary and ongoing, it does appear that certain environmental contaminants, originating mainly from heavy industries that are not local to the Faroe Islands, have found their way into the tissues of these whales and dolphins through a process called bioaccumulation.  The bioaccumulation of environmental contaminants affects mainly large, carnivorous, long-lived marine animals.  The toothed whales and dolphins taken in the grindadráp fit that description perfectly. 

A similar drive-style whaling operation existed in Newfoundland, Canada, until the 1970s.  The difference between this whale drive and the Faroese grindadráp was one of magnitude and of product:  the Faroese measure their annual take in the hundreds, sometimes taking over a thousand.  The Newfoundland take was measured in the tens of thousands. 

The grindadráp is for food; the Newfoundland whale drive was for oil.  By the late 1960s, so few whales remained in Newfoundland waters that the practice became extremely rare.  When the Canadian government banned drive-style whaling in 1972, the practice was exceedingly rare already.

Whaling in the Faroe Islands began centuries earlier than the Newfoundland practice and has lasted longer.  It has outlasted similar activities in Ireland, the Scottish Hebrides, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and the United States. 

The central question posed by my research is:  how?  How have the Faroese managed to maintain this traditional strategy of food production, despite their expanding human population, the global trend toward overexploitation of natural resources, problems of global environmental degradation as evidenced by the presence of marine contaminants in these otherwise nearly pristine waters, and—not least at all—efforts from environmental groups like Sea Shepherd to force an abandonment of what they call a crime against nature? 

The grindadráp continues mainly because of its provision of food to the Faroese people and the cultural importance that this food provision creates.  Many Faroese have chosen to reduce their consumption of whale meat and blubber in response to the dietary recommendations published by the Faroese Hospital System. 

However, measured use of the resource has long been a quality of the grindadráp.  One traditional conservation method still in effect involves the placing of geographical limits upon the spaces in which whaling is allowed.  Of the many beaches found throughout the Faroes, only twenty-three are approved for whaling.  To drive whales onto a beach other than these is illegal. The Faroese government has also given civil authorities the power to forbid grindadráp to occur if oceanographic and weather conditions are not favorable, if darkness is falling, or if the food that would result is not needed.

In their campaign to prevent the grindadráp, Paul Watson and his colleagues simply became the latest in a series of challenges to Faroese whaling.  While no grindadráp occurred during Sea Shepherd’s patrol—a fact that Watson undoubtedly attributes to his group’s presence in Faroese waters—423 whales have been taken in six separate drives since.  As is their custom, the Faroese looked on as the grindadráp was challenged, waited out the threat, and resumed driving whales.

To watch a video of Russell Fielding presenting his research, please click here.

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