A New Front In The Whale Wars


Paul Watson won’t be getting any Christmas cards from the Faroe Islands this year. Sea Shepherd’s controversial captain has long been a vocal critic of the North Atlantic archipelago — the world’s last stronghold of long-finned pilot whaling — but in 2010 he and his organisation have upped the ante. In August Sea Shepherd experimented with using acoustic devices to keep whales away from the Faroes and earlier in the northern summer undercover activist Peter Hammarstedt gained worldwide coverage after releasing footage of a pilot whale hunt off the Faroese town of Klaksvik.

But in his most aggressive move yet, last week Watson announced that in 2011 he will be bringing a ship and crew to the Faroes in a bid to film and prevent any whale hunts they encounter, thus broadening Sea Shepherd’s much-publicised "whale wars" from the Southern Ocean to this remote self-governing Danish territory, perched halfway between Iceland, Scotland and Norway.

"It’s time to blow this horror show out of the water once and for all," Watson said in an interview published on the Sea Shepherd website. "We will have crew on the beaches, on the water, under the water and in the air."

He’s going to need all the crew he can muster.

Unlike Japan’s "scientific" whaling program, whaling in the Faroes is considered of critical dietary and cultural importance. The first record of traditional Faroese whaling dates to 1298: a pod of whales is spotted, the alarm is raised with a bellow of "Grind!" (whales), and every man within earshot will drop what he is doing, arm himself, and rush to the water’s edge. Within minutes, in a hunt known as the "grindadrap," the sea runs red with blood and entire communities are provisioned with whale meat.

The sustainability of the grindadrap is not in serious question. The North Atlantic’s population of long-finned pilot whales has been estimated (pdf) to be as high as 800,000, and the population has held steady since the Faroese began keeping annual records of their semi-regular summertime hunts in 1584. And while white-sided dolphins and Risso’s dolphins are also occasionally taken, neither is considered vulnerable.

But it is the manner of killing that upsets critics. In a practice regulated by local authorities, pods are driven by boats to specially-designated beaches, where in the waiting shallows men attack them with knives, cutting the animals’ spinal chords to sever the major blood supply to the brain and thus ensure a swift death.

The method was designed by veterinarians to minimise cruelty, replacing an earlier technique involving spears and gaffs. But unsurprisingly, the reforms have done little to appease opponents. To Hammarstedt, the practice is "incredibly cruel". Some animals, he claims, take up to four minutes to die.

The communal nature of the grindadrap makes violent confrontation with Sea Shepherd seem likely. Indeed, Watson last week encouraged confrontation, claiming a legal mandate to disrupt the grindadrap.

"We challenge the Danish Navy to stop us," he said, " because if they intervene to stop us from enforcing the Berne Convention, we will be able to accuse Denmark of failing to uphold European law."

The law Watson refers to is the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, in force since 1982. But it does not apply to the Faroes, as even though they are part of the Danish realm, they are not part of the European Union and thus unaccountable to its laws. Kate Sanderson, the spokeswoman on whaling for the government of the Faroe Islands, explains.

"After so many years of following Faroese whaling, it seems Paul Watson is still no better informed about the status of the Faroes in relation to Denmark and the EU," she told New Matilda. "The Faroe Islands have a high degree of autonomy in the Kingdom of Denmark under the Home Rule Act of 1948 and in accordance with subsequent legislation from 2005 based on an agreement with Denmark, which provides the Faroes with the competence to enter into international agreements in all areas for which they have exclusive competence." Such areas of exclusive competence include conservation and management of living marine resources.

For its part, the Danish government has refused to intervene in the whaling practices of its Atlantic territory. And even if Denmark was accountable to the Convention over Faroese whaling, the case would be weak. For while Appendix II of the Convention does list long-finned pilot whales among the species of particular conservation importance, Article 2 states that contracting parties shall observe the convention to a level which corresponds to ecological, scientific and cultural requirements, taking into account "economic and recreational requirements."

"Economic and recreational requirements": for the Faroese the grindadrap is not just a defining feature of their culture, but a free source of meat in what is an extremely isolated market; for Sea Shepherd, if whaling was once necessary for the survival of an isolated peasant colony, today the practice has become "nothing more than a macho and bloody game that is meant to demonstrate one’s virility and impress the girls who watch from the beach."

To see the contemporary importance of the grindadrap for myself, in June this year I travelled to the Faroe Islands. On my second last day in the archipelago I was woken by a knock on my door and the same call that has galvanised Faroese men into action for centuries: "Grind!" My hosts heard about the grindadrap on the local radio and within minutes we were on the road to the town of Vestmanna, an hour’s drive away on the island of Streymoy.

By the time we arrived 59 pilot whales had been killed and neatly arranged in rows on the town’s blood-stained wharf. Sea Shepherd maintains that the meat attained nowadays outweighs the demand, making the grindadrap largely symbolic. But according to Kate Sanderson, first and foremost, it is a food-gathering exercise. "Pilot whales represent a high-protein food that is locally available and does not have to be imported at cost, as most other meat does," she said.

The scene at Vestmanna certainly supported Sanderson’s claims. Ten minutes after I arrived, the carcasses were being butchered with knives and axes, and meat distributed to the locals in wheelbarrows. Whaling in the Faroes is a strictly non-commercial activity, and in typically Scandinavian socialist style, a strong emphasis is placed on ensuring as many people as possible get a share of the prize. "Everyone who participated will get a share," one hunter told me. "If there is any left over it will go to the rest of the town, and then to the neighbouring town, starting with the nursing home."

But ironically, the biggest threat to the grindadrap is not external pressure from anti-whaling groups, but the whales themselves.

North Atlantic pilot whales contain high levels of mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and their consumption has been linked to a host of possible health problems in the Faroese population, including Parkinson’s disease, circulatory problems, damage to foetal neural development and infertility in adults. In 2008, the islands’ chief medical officers recommended that pilot whales no longer be considered fit for human consumption. This August, a coalition of anti-whaling groups began lobbying the World Health Organization to act on the matter.

The WHO has yet to make an announcement, but since 1998 the Faroese government has recommended their citizens limit consumption to one to two meals per month. Kate Sanderson acknowledges this has created a "dilemma" for the local population, but is quick to point out it has not reduced demand for meat and blubber, as much is wind dried and kept in storage for up to three years.

While no one I spoke to at Vestmanna was concerned about the health impact of eating pilot whales, my hosts were. Rosa and Sarita Heinesen, both in their 20s, follow their government’s recommendations. Additionally, they would not risk eating pilot whale meat and blubber if they ever became pregnant. Their friend Marita Joensen said likewise, though for her, "dried whale is like candy, so I would probably still nibble on that."

As for Sea Shepherd’s newly-announced campaign, this year’s bumper grindadrap season (980 pilot whales, 21 Risso’s dolphins and 14 white-sided dolphins), may in 2011 provide the most compelling evidence that the Faroese principally hunt whales for food: no hunts at all.

"Next year might not be a good year for him [Watson] to come," explains Marita Joensen. "Because this summer was such a good whaling year, most people have enough [meat and blubber]in their freezers to last at least next year. Therefore, there is a good chance that no whales will be caught next summer, which does occur some years" [2008, for example].

Faced with such a scenario, Watson may be left with nothing to film but the toilet wall graffiti in the bus station at Torshavn, the Faroes’ tiny capital. "Save the whales," it says, "for supper."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.