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Whales in the Faroe Islands – new opportunities?

On the heels of our recent trip to the Faroe Islands in mid-June, we are reeling from the intensity of the recent grinds that have occurred over the past month there.  In just over the course of four weeks, nearly 1100 small cetaceans have been slaughtered, including long-finned pilot whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

In just one recent drive hunt that occurred on August 13, at least 430 dolphins were killed in Hvalba on the southern island of Suduroy.  WDC is extremely concerned with this staggering number of dolphins targeted and killed in these hunts. To date, at least 1085 whales and dolphins have been killed in the Faroe Islands since the first grind on July 21st.  In just the first 24 days of the hunt season alone, the total number of whales and dolphins killed in the Faroe Islands far eclipses the total number killed in all of last season (713 pilot whales). 

For members of the public, and for those that wish to remain on the sidelines of what has been portrayed on its most basic level as just a cultural debate– and even for those of us in the middle of this nightmare– the response is the same:  helpless disbelief.  With increasing outreach in the Faroe Islands, and the welcomed dialogues and budding friendships with sympathetic and hospitable Faroe Islanders, our natural first response of outrage and shock is tempered only by the hope that such human connection might offer in the midst of this continuing darkness.  The solutions are politically and culturally complex, and friendships in the Faroe Islands might not be enough to bring these hunts to an end. 

WDC understands that whaling in the Faroe Islands has been considered to be an important part of Faroese tradition for many centuries. We believe, however, that in situations where they are no longer necessary for subsistence purposes and where they seriously and demonstrably compromise human health, animal welfare and wildlife conservation, such traditional activities should cease. WDC will continue to oppose these hunts, and indeed all cruel customs, no matter how deeply rooted in tradition.

In recent years our campaigning against the grinds has taken a lower profile in the belief that overt and vocal public pressure has only encouraged the hunts to continue, and actually increase, in response to public outcry. However, our more recent engagement with communities and authorities in the Faroe Islands has revealed that these hunts are essentially opportunistic, and although our cordial and authentic outreach has shown some potentially promising ways forward through a better understanding of these practices, no level of hunting is acceptable to WDC, and we ultimately seek an end to this practice.  

While continuing our outreach in the Faroe Islands, we continue our work in coalition with others and in our ongoing dialogue with authorities there.  Most recently, we joined several other groups in issuing a statement to the Faroese media solidifying our position against the grinds and remaining hopeful for a new relationship between the whales and Faroe Islanders. This statement is copied in its entirety below:

“Online media showing pictures of the killing of some of the 1,100 whales and dolphins taken in the Faroe Islands over the last month has shocked and distressed people around the world and created fierce debates on social networks. To many outside observers, these images are in stark contrast to the islands’ reputation as a place of unspoilt natural beauty, and overshadow the country’s image as presented in tourism advertising, such as the recently launched branding campaign by Visit Faroe Islands.

In recent decades scientists around the world have made significant strides in understanding the behaviour of whales and dolphins and agree that they are typically highly social animals, with strong family bonds and their own ‘communities’. We now understand more about the complex ways in which they can suffer both pain and distress.  It is, in part, this knowledge that make the scenes of slaughter on Faroese shores so difficult for the great majority of people overseas to understand and accept.  It is also these characteristics which elsewhere create a fascination with whales and make them the subject of a $2.1billion/year whale-watching industry worldwide, in which an individual animal can represent a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a coastal community.

We appreciate that whale hunts have a strong significance in the Faroese community, based in long historical tradition, and we understand that past criticisms of the hunts from overseas have been perceived as lacking respect or understanding for the role of the hunts in Faroese culture. But cultures are, per definition, always evolving and last year a Gallup poll in the Faroe Islands revealed that 70% of people aged 15-39, and 51% of people in all age groups, believed that the hunts could end if their cultural and traditional significance could be preserved in other ways. This has happened in other countries, where a history of whaling is honoured with new community traditions, and captured in exhibits and displays.   It is clear that exploiting natural resources has always been central to the Faroese way of life, and history shows that people have skilfully adapted to new conditions and opportunities in the islands. It is our hope that the Faroese community will look to make use of whales in a new way, celebrating them as a positive focus for eco-tourism. This could both pay tribute to the importance of the hunts in the islands’ history and also benefit the islands’ tourism economy for the future.”