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GRINDING TO A HALT
from Pete Bethune in the Faroe Islands
“So will you be hunting whales this summer”, I say to Thor, a local Faroese whaler who has finally agreed to speak with me.
Thor looks down at his cappuccino while he ponders this. He takes a spoon, scoops some white fluff from the surface, and puts it in his mouth.
“Well”, he says finally, “we do not hunt whales. They come to us and we simply take them. It is better to call it a harvest I think.”
I raise my eyebrows but decide it is not really worth arguing the point. I am desperate to know what the whalers thinking is on the various groups amassing against them now, and what they plan to do this summer.
“Well let me rephrase it then. Will you be harvesting whales this year?”
Thor looks directly at me, and there is a confident, almost arrogant air about him. “We know many people oppose our way of life here.” He pauses and takes another spoon of white fluff. “But what is the difference between a cow and a whale? You eat cows. We eat whales. Why should you come and tell us what we cannot eat?”
It’s a common argument from whaling nations. The same threads were trotted out while I was in Japan last year. Eventually I grew tired of repeating myself to so many journalists who never wanted to hear an opposing view.
There are in fact several reasons why they are different. A farmer owns the animals, in a legal sense at least. Whereas the pilot whales hunted by Faroese are pelagic, moving across many international borders. No one has farmed them, let alone owned them.
Whales are an apex predator and play a key role in maintaining the genetic strength and health of the species they predate upon. Also whale numbers are not massive. In a sense every whale matters. Admittedly for now, pilot whales numbers are not dangerously low, however all it would take is a few other whaling nations to start hunting them again and they would quickly become threatened. Whales also have a complex family structure that is totally disrupted through mass killings.
Finally, from an animal rights perspective, the slaughter of whales is a disgrace. I am not saying I like the way cows are killed either, however the killing of whales here is especially problematic. Sometimes they are killed in seconds, but in other cases, such as in Klaksvic last year, it takes up to 15 minutes of brutality before the animals finally succumb.
“Look Thor”, I say calmly. “You and I will always disagree on whaling. And that is OK. I would rather we talk about what you plan to do this summer when all the conservation groups are here?”
He snorts and sits there glaring at me. He’s typical of many locals here - blonde hair, blue eyes, short and stocky. His face is wrinkled and gnarly from many years at sea. There is also a visible pride in the way he carries himself. His blue eyes bore in on me as he starts to answer.
“We know Animal Planet is coming here to film us…and they will lie and make us all look like evil people. That is what TV does. But we have some plans…” His voice trails off. There is a long silence as he picks his cup up and takes a sip.
“So what will you do?”
“It is possible we will simply not grind (whale) at all this summer. This was in the papers a few weeks ago. We think if we grind while they are here, we will become a hit TV show like the Japanese in Antarctica. Animal Planet will keep coming back here for years. And they will continue to lie and make us look bad. But if we do nothing this summer, well Animal Planet will walk away with nothing. They will have no TV show, despite all the money they will spend here.”
A satisfied look crosses Thor’s face, and he leans back in his chair.
“How can you control all the Islanders though? There are over a dozen beaches that can legally grind, and there is no central control. If locals want to grind, they will go and do it, regardless of what the rest of you want.”
Thor waves his hand dismissively. “Each place has a single person who says yes or no to the grind. He is a Policeman. And he reports to a Policeman in Torshavin. If the boss says no grinds, then there will be no grinds this summer.”
“And you are telling me this order has been given?”
“Well not officially. I don’t think that would happen. But if maybe the boss has a little word to all his police…then maybe he can control it…”
“Well maybe you guys should just consider not grinding indefinitely. Even if you stop the grinds this summer…well groups will still be back next year. Don’t think that this problem will go away with one summer of no action. You people are now firmly locked in the conservationist sights.“
Thor looks out the café window. Various boats bob up and down in the idyllic harbour. He gives a heavy sigh and looks back at me.
“You people just don’t understand us. The grind is so important to us. It is part of our identity. It is not a fake tradition. It is something we have been doing for centuries. And to have you come and tell us to stop is deeply offensive. What gives you the right to tell us?”
“Well I believe we all have a right to speak up about what we think is right and wrong. That is fundamental to good democracy. We have a right to argue for the Sudanese to stop female circumcision. Britain had a right to argue for Germany to halt their genocide in World War II, and people had the right to argue against slavery in America. In fact it is more than a right. I believe it is an obligation. That doesn't mean you must follow what we say, but it is correct that we should be allowed to express our views.”
“But the Faroese will never stop the grind. We will always do it. And it doesn’t matter how many TV shows you make. How many people turn up here to protest. Or how many fish import bans you impose on us. We will always do it. That is the way it is.” He takes another sip of his coffee. “What do you suggest we do anyway?” His voice is raised, and other diners are starting to look at us.
It is an interesting question that I’ve spent much time considering. I don’t believe the Faroese will give up the grind any time soon. It is just so entrenched in their social fabric. But maybe there is a glimmer of hope that progress could be made. Recent government recommendations have proposed a maximum consumption of 2 servings per month due to the pollutants present in whale meat and blubber. This would equate to just one hundred whales per year. Last year they killed nearly 1000. So locals are eating way more than what their government recommends.
I propose to Thor something that a local Faroese had suggested to me earlier in the week - that maybe the government could impose a maximum number per year - like a quota. And with time they could look to reduce it. In some ways the government is already negligent in allowing the consumption of so much toxic whale meat. If a reasonable quota was introduced it may see conservation groups turning their attention elsewhere. Certainly there are ample other marine conservation issues that need addressing. In some ways the Faroese are like Inuit people in Alaska who legally hunt whales. It is just that the sheer number of whales killed here, and to a degree the open nature of the actual kill zone, has seen the spotlight now shine on them.
The Faroese are certainly in a difficult position. Their economy has few export industries to support a people that enjoy a relatively high standard of living. They are very dependent on fish exports to Europe, and especially Britain. A UK supermarket ban on Faroese fish imports has already been mooted in parliament, and if passed into law, would reverberate around this tiny economy. What may hurt them even more would be the US halting its import of farmed salmon – one of the few high margin growth industries here. The other growth industry for them is tourism. If a mainstream TV series airs on the Faroese grind, then this amazing place will likely become the Taiji of Europe, and the only tourists coming here in future will be protesters.
It cannot be nice having foreigners (like me) coming in and telling you what to do. I wonder how American’s would react if Faroese people turned up and protested outside US abattoirs opposing the consumption of beef and pork. They’d be moved on in quick time I expect. It is a credit to the people here that they continue to treat my team and I with courtesy and respect, despite our opposing views.
We continue chatting for another hour. I can see Thor is contemplating the quota idea. The thought of all us pesky activists leaving these shores must be most appealing to them. But it is also a big concession to outside pressure, and will not come easily to this proud and dignified people. Thor finally gets up to leave. He grabs my hand in a powerful grip and shakes it. “You be careful here”, he says. “”Many people are upset that you come back here. And they are not all as forgiving as me.”
I smile at him. “I’ll be careful”, I say. “And I want you to stop doing to the grind.”
A big laugh erupts from him. In fact it is the first laugh he’s given. “I will never stop the grind”, he says. “It is part of who I am. My father took me to the grinds. And I take my sons to the grinds. But maybe in the future…we will not kill so many. Maybe even a quota could happen…” he laughs again and wanders outside.
Dark clouds have rolled in of the North Atlantic, and it reflects my pessimism about this place. I hate the grind. I think it barbaric. But at the same time I understand the importance the people here place on it. I can see why they are reluctant to see it go. Perhaps a quota would be a step forward that could partially placate both sides. Many of us would dearly love to see progress made here. One thing is certain, if they continue whaling here at current numbers, they will pay a heavy price.