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Catholic Concern for Animals

Selections From The Ark Number 196 - Spring 2004

Whaling on the Faroe Islands

Sr Maria, a Franciscan Missionary of Mary, has been been involved in childcare and pastoral work with adults since she arrived on the Faroes in 1990. She and six fellow FMMs work in a parish of 120 parishioners of 23 nationalities. Here she discusses the controversial traditional whale drive.

By Maria Forrestal FMM

The Faroe Islands are not well known to many people, except perhaps those interested in fishing or whaling. The latter has certainly been a source of controversy. At the end of September, Dimmalætting, one of the national newspapers on the Faroes, featured several articles drawing attention to recent coverage of whaling in an English newspaper.

The article, ‘When the Sea Foamed Red’ was written by a journalist from the Daily Mail who visited the Faroe Islands during a whale drive in Tórshavn in September, 2003. The article depicted the Faroese people as barbarians who kill whale simply for the pleasure of killing.

Later that month Dimmalætting reported that three female students at the local high school were shocked on opening an envelope containing a copy of the article covered in foul and threatening language: ‘You should all be killed’ … ‘You should be bombed’ … ‘Rot in hell’ … ‘You disgusting b------ds’. The envelope had an English postmark and a similar letter was sent to Dimmalætting. In this instance, circles had been drawn around photographs of children playing on the shoreline as the dead whales were being towed away by boat after the hunt. The Faroese Tourist Board also received many messages by e-mail, most of which were deemed unfit for reprinting in the newspaper.

Is the article an accurate and fair presentation of whaling in the Faroe Islands? Is it necessary to kill whales in a modern Faroese culture where the standard of living is high? Are alternatives available? Should this aspect of the culture and tradition of the people be safeguarded in the present context? Is the slaughter justified? These are valid and far-reaching questions, and each and every Faroese person must examine his or her own conscience.

But are there not others who must make a similar examination of conscience regarding the viciousness of their attacks on the Faroese people? I am disturbed by the manner in which the people of this nation are depicted at times and the consequences of this recent reporting. Furthermore, I believe the Faroese people are entitled to a fair hearing. With this in mind, I ask that consideration be given to the points raised in the remainder of this article.

The Faroese Landscape

The Faroes are a group of 18 volcanic islands lying midway between Scotland and Iceland. They are known for their rugged unspoilt beauty, lack of pollution, peace and tranquility, dense fogs and stormy weather. They have a very limited variety of animal life: sheep, some cattle, mountain ponies, hares, and lots of birds and fish. Cats and dogs are scarce. Wasps have only appeared recently. There are few trees, and only six per cent of the land is cultivated because of the poor quality and scarcity of top soil. Potatoes and rhubarb are the only crops cultivated in abundance. Almost all other fruit and vegetables are imported by ship and are expensive as a result. During Winter months, access to some of the more isolated villages and islands is sometimes impossible because of storms, snow and severe ice, making the people dependent on the resources they already have in their deep freeze/cellars.

For centuries, the Faroese people have survived on a diet of fish, mutton and fowl in a harsh, isolated and inhospitable environment. Indeed, the people frequently referred to whale meat as the ‘harvest of the sea’ and, as soon as whales were beached, someone ran to open the church doors in thanksgiving. On occasion, whale meat saved the people from starvation. It also provided a rich diet in a barren land where people lived very poorly and little else was available. It is good to recall that dozens of Faroese seamen gave their lives in helping provide fish (including whale meat) for hungry British people during World War II.

The Faroese Nation

It is thought that the very first settlers on the islands were hermits from Ireland who settled here in the eight century. However, today’s islanders, numbering almost 48,000, are descendants of Norwegian settlers and retain their own distinct language, culture and traditions, much of which can be traced directly back to the Viking period. Forming part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the islands enjoy a high level of Home Rule. Approximately 97 per cent of the economy is said to be based on the fishing industry which has developed enormously over the past 40 years, providing income and employment either directly or indirectly for many people. Today, the standard of living is high after centuries of severe hardship and isolation.

The people are generally known for their easy-going manner, their warmth and their generous hospitality. They are also a close-knit and community -orientated people, possessing courage and endurance, as evidenced by their survival on the islands over the centuries. There is very little violence on the streets. People would find it difficult to name the year when the last murder was committed; young children play freely and unsupervised late into the evening; women generally walk freely and without fear in the streets at night; neighbours are always willing to give a helping hand at a time of need ...

The whale hunt

When whales are seen in local Faroese waters (anytime between July and September), the alarm is raised and boats arrive to form a huge arc around the whales. They are then slowly pushed towards the nearest landing bay. As the whales approach the area, the boatmen generate a great deal of noise and begin driving the whales who, caught up in their own momentum, beach themselves. The beaching area has been cordoned off and local people wait, silent and hidden.

As soon as the whales are beached, the people descend on to the shore and some of the men present cut the main artery with a sharp dagger. Although a lot of blood flows, the whale normally dies very quickly. After the slaughter, the whales are towed by boat to a nearby weighing area, and marked and cut up for distribution; a process which takes several hours. Nothing goes to waste. The blubber and whale meat are shared freely amongst the participants and homes in the area. A portion of the catch is also distributed to local institutions in the vicinity, such as hospitals, homes for the elderly, etc. It is not normally available commercially. When a locality has received its official quota of whale meat for the year, that area is closed and no further whale hunts may be conducted there. The meat is dried, salted and frozen, often providing several dinners for the average Faroese family, and making a significant contribution to the family budget. Indeed, whale meat is said to make up to 15 per cent of the annual meat consumption on the islands.

Formerly, the whale hunt received some very valid criticism from organisations like ‘Greenpeace’, and animal rights activists such as Paul Watson and ‘Sea Shepherd’, for the manner in which the hunt was conducted. As a result, legislation and procedures have been greatly improved. Nowadays, there is a very strict criteria for the hunt in order to ensure as painless an end for the whale as possible, and to eliminate serious injury or death of the men involved. The hunt is confined to unendangered species, chiefly the pilot whale which is to be found in large numbers. The Faroese authorities also work closely with various organisations to monitor whaling and its effects, and they continue to develop more humane hunting methods.

In recent years, the consumption of whale meat has diminished due to the fact that poisonous chemicals – resulting from the pollution of the oceans – have been found present in the liver of the whale. People have been told not to eat whale meat more than twice a week when it’s available, and pregnant women are advised to abstain completely.

A question of morality

In my first years here, I tasted whale meat on several occasions and witnessed three small whale hunts. However, these days, I eat neither meat, fish nor fowl. Neither would I watch or take someone else to watch a whale hunt. Nevertheless, I understand a little of its complexity, its value and its significance within this culture. To watch a whale hunt is to experience something of the primitive Viking spirit still alive in the people. It is to be caught up in a community drama as people literally drop everything to run down on the beach before the whole procedure is over. It is to experience courage and daring as men plunge into icy cold waters and wrestle with nature. It is to feel fear and perhaps disgust as blood mixes with sand and sea water. It is to wonder what the whales feel and experience as they are hunted and killed. It is to experience generousity and gratitude as the whale meat is shared out in the community.

However, as I already stated, it also poses tough and far-reaching questions for every Faroese person.

There are other equally serious questions which need to be asked of those who object to whaling in the Faroes. Is it acceptable for journalists to enjoy the hospitality of the Faroese Tourist Board and the National Airline of a country and then write a scathing attack on its people? Are journalists at the service of truth when they isolate photographs and facts in order to give a one-sided report of events in a small and distant nation in a language that many of its people do not speak? Is it acceptable that three young female students – who in all probability had nothing to do with the whale hunt in September 2003 – should be subjected to such a foul attack as that which was reported in the national newspaper? Do not the writers of such articles bear some responsibility for the consequences of their reporting? Is the cause of animal welfare being furthered by such virulent attacks? What of the Faroese people who do not participate in the whale hunt? Who are vegetarian? I also wonder if the author of this particuliar article was equally vocal when thousands of sheep, pigs and cattle were slaughtered during the ‘Foot and Mouth’ epidemic? Or at protesting the hundreds of defenceless lives brutually ended through abortion every day in his own country?

I would emphasize that my point is not to defend whaling. I write because, as I stated at the beginning of this article, I am disturbed by the manner in which the Faroese people are sometimes depicted and because I believe they are entitled to a fair hearing. I have tried to give a picture of the people with whom I have lived for 13 years, their context and their culture.

It is for you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions.

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