“Save the whales!” goes the successful slogan touted by environmental and conservation organizations. After all, who doesn’t admire those lovable sea mammals! Yet, the newest of environmental catchphrases is “Eat local!” What then, if your local food is whale?
In the middle of the North Atlantic lies an island nation made up of towering cliffs, green valleys, and windswept beaches. The Faroe Islands are so small, one can never be further than 5km from the ocean. A peaceful, quiet place, it is frequently compared to the Shire. But the weather is brutal and it demands a humility and patience before nature rarely seen in mainland cities. The islanders’ days are planned according to the winds and currents, rather than digital schedules.
But these serene islands are accused of harbouring a deep, dark secret. Some years ago, the international marine conservation organization Sea Shepherd discovered a pile of large skeletons on the ocean floor near the Faroese shores. Horrified, they also witnessed the water redden on the beach, as local men in a seemingly wild frenzy cut spine after spine from dozens of stranded whales. Women and children watched – excitedly!
The peaceful islanders had inexplicably become ferocious, bloodthirsty, barbaric! Thus, the activists tried everything to stop the bloodbath. Appealing to global media, they reported it as downright murder, and smeared the islands’ reputation in order to provoke an international boycott. Prepared to risk their own lives, they even placed themselves physically between the hunters and the hunted.
What the activists failed to understand, however, was that the Faroese had not suddenly become obsessed by some demonic rapture. Nor were they holding a deranged blood-festival or savage manhood test. They were participating in a centuries-old method of converting nature’s riches into a meal on the table. It’s called Grindadráp – literally “whale kill.”
Awareness raising of food origins and production processes is a growing trend. People demand organic, free-range, non-GMO, and local products – acknowledging the unhealthy, unethical and unsustainable aspects of industrial agriculture. According to the National Gardening Association, in 2014, 35% of all American households grew food at home – a 17% increase from 2008. Among younger households the increase was 63%. Surprisingly, in this regard, the Faroese Grindadráp is exemplary.
The Grindadráp dates back to the Vikings, and records have been kept of every kill since 1584 – that is the longest unbroken record of any harvest on Earth! According to the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission, the species in question – the pilot whale – is not endangered. In fact, the average number of 800 whales annually killed amounts to less than 0.1% of the population. The Grindadráp is spontaneous, communal, non-commercial, and strictly regulated. With no active search, a hunt may be initiated only if a pod of whales is spotted near the islands. First, authorities must be informed. They then decide whether currents, winds and other conditions are favourable for a sufficiently quick drive. The whales may only be herded to bays appropriate for an efficient slaughter, and there must be enough available hands present. Those participating are required to have special training to put the animal down swiftly, based on continuously updated recommendations from veterinarians. True to age-old tradition, every islander is entitled to a measured share of each hunt, limited to what a person can eat. Distributed first amongst active participants and second amongst locals of the town where the slaughter takes place, surplus food is given to neighbouring towns and homes for the elderly and disabled. Lastly, another Grindadráp will not take place until previous stocks of meat are depleted.
If you grew up in the city and never saw the inside of a slaughter house, a bloody beach will probably upset you. Indeed, some argue that whaling is unnecessary in 2017 – that rocky, infertile islands can easily import food. Critical voices also exist within the Faroes – mostly concerned because of the high levels of pollutants in the meat. Ironically, these toxins stem from the very industrial import that would substitute whale meat.
However, most Faroese see an ethical duty in teaching their children to cultivate their food – food that saved their ancestors’ lives for centuries. To them, respecting and protecting nature does not mean placing it behind glass-walls where curious city dwellers can admire it, maybe pet it. Well-aware that cutting off the branch you sit on is suicide, the Faroese Government representative to the EU, Kate Sanderson, notes, “we’re completely dependent on the sea and we have to make sure that we can continue to use its resources sustainably in the future.”
In the Faroes, the priority is to maintain the knowledge and skills that enable people to be part of nature’s cycle rather than its spectator. That cycle includes death, but it is a stepping stone, not an endpoint. And so, the skeletons are cast back to sea, where they become the beginning of another life.