Faroe Islands Pilot Whale Hunt1 2014 08 05
Hunters drive the pilot whales towards the beach, where the animals are killed by cutting the spine. Image: Carsten Fonsdal Mikkelsen, Flickr

The words 'mass dolphin slaughter' are likely to bring to mind a small Japanese fishing town called Taiji, made infamous after the harrowing documentary The Cove exposed its annual dolphin drive hunts. But for the latest round of dolphin-hunting news, look no farther than a blustery archipelago in the North Atlantic known as the Faroe Islands. 

Each year, the islands' inhabitants participate in what's known as grindadráp in the local Faroese language. The translation dolphin 'grinds'   is grimly evocative: armed with gaff hooks, ropes and whaling knives, hunters drive entire pods of long-finned pilot whales (one of the largest members of the dolphin family) into specially chosen bays, forcing the animals to strand so they can be killed on the shore. 

This year's hunt is already under way, with 13 pilot whales killed in the Faroese town of Fuglafjørður on May 18, according to the Sea Shepherd. The marine conservation organisation is one of the strongest opponents of the practice and has been campaigning to end it since the 1980s. "The wholesale slaughter of entire families and the unimaginable horror inflicted upon these sentient, intelligent beings is unconscionable," it says in a recent update on its website.

“The hunts are a barbaric and cruel relic of history that has no place in modern civilisation.”

With bodies lined up on shore and the surrounding waters stained red, the grinds certainly are a gruesome spectacle – and one that's easily conveyed to stir worldwide outrage. But locals insist these annual community hunts, which have their roots in some of the earliest Norse traditions, are a cultural right, as well as an important source of food on a rocky and remote island chain where little grows.

Anti-whaling campaigners disagree, with Sea Shepherd branding the hunts a "barbaric and cruel relic of history that has no place in modern civilisation". Its activists also argue that the need to hunt whales for food no longer exists in the present day. Recent research seems to side with them, suggesting that whale meat should stay off the menu for safety reasons. According to a study conducted by experts from the Faroe Islands themselves, meat and blubber from pilot whales should "no longer be considered fit for human consumption" due to the dangerously high levels of mercury it contains.

Faroe Islands Pilot Whale Hunt 2014 08 05
Killed pilot whales on the beach in the village Hvalba on the southernmost Faroese island Suðuroy, 11 August 2002. Image: Erik Christensen, Wikimedia Commons.

Concerns are also mounting about the impact of the grindadráp on local dolphin populations. Along with pilot whales, Faroese hunters are also permitted to take other smaller dolphins, as well as harbour porpoises. Hunters claim their annual catch – an average of 850 pilot whales, according to IUCN estimates – is sustainable. The International Whaling Commission (IWC), the body charged with the conservation of global whale stocks, agrees.

But the IUCN currently lists long-finned pilot whales in its 'Data Deficient' category, which suggests that conservationists don't know precisely how these marine mammals are faring, making it hard to gauge what the impact of the hunts could be. "The truth is that we don’t know how many pilot whales are out there," says Lamya Essemlali, the president of Sea Shepherd France. She adds that the sustainability of the hunts is highly questionable because current population estimates, which place pilot whale numbers at around 750,000 in the North Atlantic, are very outdated. 

As of August 1, Sea Shepherd has 70 volunteers patrolling the islands as part of its Operation GrindStop 2014, which aims to actively "oppose the slaughter of pilot whales and dolphins" in the area. It plans to keep patrolling throughout the hunt's bloodiest period, which ends around the start of October. In a recent face-off with the hunters, Sea Shepherd activists escorted a pod of 20 whales out of harm's way, guiding the animals out of a local fjord and back out to sea – using the same herding techniques the whalers use to drive them onto the beach.  

Top header image: Carsten Fonsdal Mikkelsen, Flickr