Every summer in the Faroe Islands, hundreds of pilot whales and dolphins are slaughtered in drive hunts known as the “grind.”
The hunt always sparks fierce criticism abroad, but never so much as on Sept. 12, when a particularly bountiful catch saw 1,428 dolphins massacred in one day, raising questions on the island itself about the practice.
Images of hundreds of dolphins lined up on the sand, some of them hacked up by what appeared to be propellers, the water red with blood, shocked some of the staunchest supporters of the “grind” and raised concern in the archipelago’s fishing industry.
For the first time, the local government of the autonomous Danish archipelago in the depths of the North Atlantic said that it would re-evaluate regulations surrounding the killing of dolphins specifically, without considering an outright ban on the tradition.
“I had never seen anything like it before. This is the biggest catch in the Faroes,” said Jens Mortan Rasmussen, one of the hunter-fishermen at the scene in the village of Skala.
While used to criticism, Rasmussen said this time round it was “a little different.”
“Fish exporters are getting quite a lot of furious phone calls from their clients and the salmon industry has now mobilized against dolphin-hunting,” he said. “It’s a first.”
The meat of pilot whales and dolphins is only eaten by the fishers themselves, but there is concern that news of the massacre will hit the reputation of an archipelago that relies considerably on exporting other fish, including salmon.
Traditionally, the Faroe Islands — which have a population of 50,000 — hunt pilot whales in a practice known as “grindadrap,” or the “grind.”
Hunters first surround the whales with a wide semicircle of fishing boats and then drive them into a bay to be beached and slaughtered by fishers on the beach.
Normally, about 600 pilot whales are hunted every year in this way, while fewer dolphins also get caught.
Faroese say that there is an abundance of whales, dolphins and porpoises in their waters — more than 100,000, or two per capita.
They see it as an open-air slaughterhouse that is not that different to the millions of animals killed behind closed doors all over the world, said Vincent Kelner, the director of a documentary on the “grind.”
And it’s of historical significance for the Faroe Islanders. Without this meat from the sea, their people would have disappeared.
However, the magnitude of the catch on Sept. 12 in the large fjord came as a shock as fishers targeted a particularly big school of dolphins.
The sheer number of the animals that beached slowed down the slaughter, which “lasted a lot longer than a normal grind,” Rasmussen said. “When the dolphins reach the beach, it’s very difficult to send them back to sea, they tend to always return to the beach.”
Kelner said that the fishers were “overwhelmed.”
“It hits their pride, because it questions the professionalism they wanted to put in place,” he said.
Faroese Prime Minister Bardur a Steig Nielsen on Thursday last week said that the government would re-evaluate “dolphin hunts and what part they should play in Faroese society.”
Critics say that the Faroese can no longer put forward the argument of sustenance when killing whales and dolphins.
“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy European island community ... with no need or use for such a vast quantity of contaminated meat is outrageous,” said Rob Read, chief operating officer at marine conservation non-governmental organization Sea Shepherd, referring to high levels of mercury in dolphin meat.
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