In July, 78 dolphins were killed on the Faroe Islands in view of a luxury cruise liner, shocking guests and prompting calls for a boycott.
Wondering if there was more to this story, Yahoo News Australia reached out to the islanders to find out why they did it, and what we discovered was surprising.
We travelled to the Faroes to speak with whalers Jón Nónklett and Jan á Líknargøtu. They both live on the island of Eysturoy, the second largest in the Faroes, an autonomous Danish territory near Scotland that is exempt from EU laws.
Jón is a family man. His own father was Danish and died young, leaving the responsibility of teaching him the ways of the grindadráp (whale killing) down to other adults. He worries children are losing their knowledge of animals because they don’t interact with them.
“The only animals they see are on TV. The problem is, they think if we don’t treat animals like they do in the Disney movies, then you are a barbaric person,” he said.
Cruise ships accused of harming marine life
Jón attended the grindadráp in front of tourists at Tórshavn, but he thinks criticism about what they did is misplaced. He's more concerned about the impact of cruise liners which are known to foul the water and harm whales through collisions and noise.
"You can say that cruise ships are major sinners when it comes to pollution and emissions," he said. "The ships are massive and use huge engines to propel them, just as other big vessels do."
For those who criticised what they witnessed in his country's waters, he has some advice. "Whenever I visit other people, cultures or countries, I try to behave as a guest. And although I might not always agree with them I respect the hosts who let me into their homes."
Jón explains why he eats dolphins and whales
Jón loves animals — he owns 120 sheep, a couple of bulls, and horses. He continues, “I know that one day the lives of my animals will end. My opinion is they should have a good life and a fast, humane death. Horses as well. If it’s a good, fat horse that must be taken down because the vet says so, I will eat it. I won’t throw it away.”
During the interview he produces a calendar that details the annual cycle of the Faroes’ wild animals. At the beginning of the year he’ll recover the rams from the mountains; shoot birds like puffins, guillemot and razorbill between October and January, then hare from November ‘til December.
Hunting is regulated by this calendar to ensure the supply remains sustainable. It also accounts for pilot whales, which are actually a species of dolphin. An average of 800 are killed in the Faroes annually compared to an estimated 380,000 living in the North Atlantic.
‘No difference between a cow and a whale’
The whalers resent being referred to as hunters. Rather, they argue the grind is an opportunistic practice. “I’m a foreman for this bay here,” he says. “It’s typical, if a fishing boat sees a pod of whales, then they will call the police station and the foreman will get the message. Then we will drive the pod in towards the shores.”
When a pod of whales is spotted, the news will be reported online, and the community will scramble to the scene as quickly as possible. Improved regulations in 2013 mean that everyone must now obtain a licence to kill.
Of the whales, Jón says, “In my opinion there’s no difference between a cow and a whale. They are big animals — there’s a lot of blood. For many people that seems scary, but for us that grow up slaughtering our own meat it’s just natural.”
Whaling an alternative to importing New Zealand meat
Jan is a bachelor who lives 50 yards from the beach and owns a flock of sheep. On this particular day, a pod has been spotted from the nearby village of Kollafjørður, though he’s declined to participate.
He explains how in one of the most expensive countries in the world, whale meat and blubber are distributed for free throughout the community. “We divide it up between the people. Last year there were 22 whales slaughtered on this beach and around 500 people to harvest it and take it home to their families.”
There’s never any question of whether the elderly and infirm will receive their share. Jan has strong feelings about sustainability.
“We import a lot of meat from New Zealand and Argentina. Is that more sustainable than the whales that are killed 50 yards from home? There’s always the argument from naysayers that we can buy everything from the supermarket — yes, we can buy everything, but nothing grows here.”
The rugged, mountainous landscape of the Faroes means only 2 per cent of the land is suitable for crop growth. “We have 70,000 sheep and we are 50,000 people. A little more than a sheep a day wouldn’t last us very long! The less that we need, the better for everybody.”
Supermarkets discovered selling whale meat
The Faroe Islands have never commercialised whale meat, though the government acknowledges it’s occasionally possible to buy in supermarkets around the capital when there’s a surplus.
However, it’s telling that the media remains largely tolerant of countries like Japan, Iceland and Norway, where whaling has long been an industry. Is there an aspect of going after the little guy at play? “I think so, yeah. The Faroes are an easy target,” says Jan.
The argument goes, of course, that whales are intelligent. What does he have to say about that? ‘I’ve never slaughtered a chicken, but I’ve been close to a chicken, and I think you can have as good a conversation with a chicken as you can with a whale.”
More on Faroe Islands whaling:
Are Faroese likely to stop killing whales and dolphins?
In July, Rob Read, chief operations officer at Captain Paul Watson Foundation UK—formerly known as Sea Shepherd—told Yahoo News Australia, “Cruise companies need to take a stand in support of ocean wildlife and remove the Faroe Islands from itineraries. Their continued visits to the Faroe Islands inadvertently supports the abhorrent practice that is the Grindadráp.”
Over the past decade, Sea Shepherd’s tactics have evolved from physically disrupting whale drives to speaking out against the islanders in the media. Jón believes the impact of their campaign has actually been the opposite of their intention.
Of this, Jón says, “The Faroese people, especially the young people, those men and women are actually more together around this. They stand against the world. They feel that nobody else is gonna tell us how to live.”
Likewise, Jan claims the practice had been decreasing in popularity until outside influences became involved. Many now feel a defiance and determination to continue the traditions of their ancestors.
“Nobody else can say we can’t do it. When foreign powers come and try to change a way of life that’s been done for thousands of years, then you’re going to have a backlash.”
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