Dolphin hunting is a centuries-old practice in the Faroe Islands.
But tradition is being re-examined after more than 1,400 of the aquatic mammals were killed in a record-breaking slaughter that sparked an outcry among local residents and global environmental groups on Sunday.
The hunt in the North Atlantic Islands is not for commercial purposes and is government approved, but even those who support the practice have expressed concern that this year’s event could lead to a closer scrutiny.
For hundreds of years, Faroe Islands people have been part of the annual hunting tradition known in the Faroe Islands as “grind” or grindadráp. It sees pilot whales, the second largest species of dolphins after the orcas, and other dolphins being herded into fjords before being stabbed.
The remote island tradition was brought closer to a global audience in the Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy” earlier this year.
According to Government of the Faroe Islands, the practice is “fully regulated” and considered “sustainable”, with an average of around 600 pilot whales and 250 white-sided dolphins caught each year for the past two decades.
However, Sunday’s catch exceeded that average, as the Seattle-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society estimated that at least 1,428 white-sided dolphins were killed in what the organization called a “cruel and unnecessary hunt”.
“Given the time we are in, with a global pandemic and the world at a standstill, it is absolutely appalling to see an attack on nature on this scale in the Faroe Islands,” said Alex Cornelissen, Global CEO of Sea Shepherd. in a statement.
“If we have learned anything from this pandemic, it is that we must live in harmony with nature rather than wiping it out.”
The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has long called for an end to the “bloody whale slaughter” in the Faroe Islands.
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Bjarni Mikkelsen, a marine biologist from the Faroe Islands, said the catch was the largest number of dolphins killed on the islands in a single day. Previously, he said the highest number was 1200 in 1940.
Traditionally, the grindadráp is “very well organized and when the trip takes place there are enough people on the beach that a harvest rarely takes longer than 10 minutes”.
On Sunday, the carnage lasted almost an hour, which led to disturbing scenes on the bank that shook residents.
He said he believed the hunters were not prepared for the vastly large school of white-sided dolphins they encountered.
Páll Nolsøe, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Culture of the Faroe Islands, admitted that the catch on Sunday was “exceptionally large”. And he said on Wednesday, “there is no doubt that the whale hunts are a dramatic sight for people unfamiliar with the hunts.”
However, he claimed that even the Sunday catch was considered sustainable by the Faroese government as the hunting practice helps sustain communities with funds from the region.
“It is very important to understand that the basis of whaling in the Faroe Islands is food provision,” he said. “The meat is distributed among the participants … and also to local communities.”
He also noted that the Faroe Islands whaling has been going on “since the Viking Age”, so the “grind” is seen by many as an important part of the Faroe Islands’ cultural identity and heritage.
Mikkelsen said that “all of the meat” from the Sunday trip was distributed to local communities in the Faroe Islands. “At least that’s positive,” he said.
However, he said he believes the weekend incident at least highlights the need for regulations on how many dolphins can be killed each year as well as within a single trip.
Nolsøe said that while those participating in the grind must get permission from local authorities and are subject to animal welfare regulations that require animals to be killed “as quickly and efficiently as possible”, there are currently no regulations on how many dolphins are there can be slaughtered.
As the consequences of the hunt continue on Sunday, this could soon be up for discussion.