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Drastically reduced killing numbers compared to last year. What has happen? Faroese animal advocate, Marna Frida Olsen, shares a few thoughts on this year’s grind season.

Faroes vs. Sea Shepherd(c) Marna Olson
‘Operation Grindstop 2014’. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) once again declared ‘war’ on Faroese whalers. While SSCS has actively opposed the grindadráp (the pilot whale hunt) since the 1980’s, this year’s campaign was their biggest yet. All summer from early June to late September a multinational team of volunteers dressed in black patrolled on and around the islands, documenting, keeping watch and driving out whales.

Only 53 cetaceans (48 pilot whales and 5 northern bottlenose whales) lost their lives this summer compared to 1534 (1104 pilot whales and 430 white-sided dolphins) last year. Would more whales have been killed if SSCS hadn’t interfered? Probably. Does that mean the Faroese whalers are giving up and waving a white flag? Not exactly.

The lives lost and saved
The first hunt of the year happened before SSCS arrived on the islands. It took place in Fuglafjørður on the 18. May on a boat ramp, which should be questioned for its suitability. 13 pilot whales were killed while being quite deep in water, which means it is likely that the whales suffered longer than necessary. If a whale is not properly beached it may be moving too much for the whale killer to hit the spinal chord precisely with the spinal lance.

The second killing was in Hvalba on the 28. August of five stranded northern bottlenose whales – a toothed whale that grows 10 meters in length and is prohibited to kill on the Faroes, unless they have stranded themselves and cannot be driven back out. They were heavily hunted up to the 1970’s and are listed as Data Deficient by the IUCN. While in many places around the world people go out of their way to save the lives of stranded whales, on the Faroes a stranding like that can mean a feast of delicacy.

Hard to believe perhaps, but some good whale and dolphin related things do also happen on the Faroes. Last winter a few sperm whales stranded in a fjord and one man, ironically a whaler, managed to drive them back out. On a day in March a small group of white-sided dolphins were at risk of stranding in Kollafjørður and were rescued by a few men in the village. The same species is sometimes hunted on the islands. In general, many enjoy the sight of whales and don’t hesitate to photograph or film.

Last but not least, on the 30. August in Sandur a pod of 35 pilot whales died during a hunt that received extraordinary media attention internationally. 14 SSCS volunteers were arrested for interfering with the hunt, of whom 8 were prosecuted, and all three boats used during the event were seized.

Because the Faroese police received considerable assistance from the Danish Navy in assuring a safe and smooth hunt, it became very clear how the Danish government has directly supported the hunt. An interesting fact since Faroe Islands is a country within the Kingdom of Denmark, and Denmark is a member of the EU where whaling is illegal. Perhaps this could be an angle for OceanCare and likeminded organizations to question Denmark’s actions politically.

A national feeling
Like in football, a certain team spirit can be felt amongst the Faroese when the black pirate flag of SSCS wavers on the islands. People cheer for the whalers and boo at the whale protectors. Jokes about the other ‘team’ and their Captain spread widely. Even counting points, like “1-0 to the Faroes”, was common to see in the comment sections on online media.

Understandable at times, many Faroe islanders feel provoked by the aggressive tactics of SSCS and a few other organizations. But for pilot whales a grindadráp is no game. People are busy with their personal disputes when they should be looking into the eyes of the innocent victims of a so-called tradition and ask themselves, “Is this suffering really necessary?”

Getting to know the animal
Pilot whales and other cetaceans have been part of the Faroese culture for centuries. At times in history the survival of this remote island nation depended on the meat and blubber from whales. Today the killing is needless. Many Faroese fear losing a part of their culture if the grindadráp ends. But I believe we have a unique chance to turn things around 180 degrees and still benefit from the pilot whales as a cultural resource.

Not long ago I was in Tarifa on the Southern tip of Spain. There are mainly two reasons why thousands of people travel to Tarifa every year: water sports and dolphins. I am no surfer, though riding waves looks like lots of fun. No, I went to see dolphins and one species in particular. In the Strait of Gibraltar several pods of long-finned pilot whales are year-round residents.

Pilot whales, (c) Marna Olsen

Onboard one of the whale watching boats of firmm, a Swiss organization that offers responsible whale watching, I saw the same species that is hunted on my home islands alive and free for the first time in my life. It was a beautiful sight and a precious experience that I wish for anybody on the Faroes as well as visitors to have.
How would it be if pilot whales around the Faroe Islands were not slaughtered but rather welcomed with friendliness and curiosity? Would they become residents? Would Faroe islanders appreciate and enjoy their oceanic surroundings more and come to respect the creatures they live side by side with? Would more tourists travel to the islands to experience this unique place where marvelous sea creatures thrive in their natural habitat?

The grindadráp is not going to end today or tomorrow, but it will end. More and more Faroese speak up against the hunt and the demand for the meat and blubber is declining, especially because it is contaminated with mercury and other harmful toxins. I made a website about pilot whales, Grindaboð.fo, because I wish for people to get to know the animal. Also, I would like to promote the pilot whale as a cultural, living icon for the Faroe Islands. Changes are happening from within.

I feel thankful to OceanCare and other organizations for their constructive efforts to save the pilot whales in the long run.

dolphin, (c) Marna Olson

More information about whale hunt in the Faroe Islands