For the 50,000 people of the Faroe Islands, a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark, hunting long-finned pilot whales — a dark gray species found in their waters — is a tradition that stretches back centuries. These whales are a food source, and hunting them is considered an important part of Faroese culture. Today, the hunt, known as the “grind” (which rhymes with “wind” and is also the Faroese word for “pilot whale”), is highly controversial and divisive, despite the fact that the whales are not endangered.
Last year, photojournalist and TED Fellow Ed Ou and his filmmaking partner Elise Cokertraveled to the Faroe Islands to make a documentary for VICE, The Grind, about a standoff between the Faroese and the marine conservation society Sea Shepherd. For this doc — which you can watch above (warning: it does contain graphic images) — they filmed interviews with both the Faroese people and the activists who came to stop them, including Sea Shepherd supporter Pamela Anderson. In the process, they captured footage of the hunt itself.
We asked Ou and Coker to tell us more.
The Faroese hunt these whales for food — but to be clear, are whales still necessary for their diet?
There’s almost no native agriculture in the Faroes, and whales historically have been a staple of sustenance for the Faroese. They’ve survived into the modern day by fishing — including hunting whales — and raising sheep. Now, of course, the Faroese import goods from around the world. It’s true that if the grind were to stop today, the Faroese would not starve — but that is assuming nothing will ever interfere with global trade and a steady influx of shipments.
Those who oppose the grind often say the Faroese don’t need whale when they have access to resources from the rest of the world, but this suggestion that the Faroese should exclusively rely on outside sustenance strikes many as unfair and even somewhat ironic in light of the urban movement to eat local foods.
The Faroese maintain that self-sufficiency is of utmost importance to them, and were it not for whales — a free, noncommercial, locally hunted food — they’d be significantly more dependent on imports. Plus, they question whether it’s better — both from humane and environmental perspectives — to import a pig from a farm somewhere in mainland Europe, rather than hunt a whale that swims by the islands. The other thing to note is that even when they are not hunting whales, their entire export industry is based on fishing and the resources of the sea.
Why do you think this has gotten so much attention? Do you think Sea Shepherd would respond differently had the hunters involved been indigenous? Is there an assumption that if people look European, they have access to other food?
Simply put, the whale hunt is bloody. It takes place out in the open, and whales have a certain special status in people’s hearts and imaginations. The Faroese will argue that whale hunting and the act of killing for food is no worse than eating beef, chicken or pork. In fact, they go on to say that whales that are hunted have lived full lives out in the ocean, whereas factory farming of chicken or cows is crueler and worse for the environment.
It’s hard to say how the ethnicity of the Faroese plays into this. Sea Shepherd does have campaigns against non-European indigenous cultures. I think the main difference is that the Faroese have not experienced colonialism, while other cultures often taking the brunt of similar activism have a far more traumatized history of outsiders imposing alien standards upon their ways of life. As a result, the Faroese have a lot of unabashed pride, and defend their culture — more so, perhaps, than cultures that have been systematically oppressed over time.
Why do you think activists have focused on this rather than on trying to stop industrial meat production?
Sea Shepherd does have campaigns to stop industrial fishing and whaling in other parts of the world. To be clear, we don’t think the instinct to want to save whales and conserve marine wildlife is incorrect at all. This specific campaign in the Faroe Islands is a very visual and accessible one for Sea Shepherd to rally around. As volunteers told us, this is a specific, small and relatively easy thing to stop. One can easily imagine getting physically between a small group of hunters and the whales. Responsibility for the larger problems that plague the oceans is so diffuse and far-flung that the acute focus of a mission like this in the Faroes is appealing to those who want to feel like they are making an immediate and visceral difference.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>