Written by Helene Hesselager O’Barry
Helgi and Ívun Lervig seemed suspicious of us as soon as they opened their door. Their wariness likely had something to with the fact that we had rung their bell well past midnight, in the middle of a tremendous rainstorm. Also – though the couple has been renting part of their home to travelers for years – they rarely receive visitors in November. Few tourists choose the cold, dark North Atlantic winter as the time to make an excursion to Tórshavn, capital of the isolated Faroe Islands.
The following morning, standing in their living room surrounded by folk-art paintings of Faroese fjords, the Lervigs asked us why we had come. I told the truth, and confirmed their suspicions. I said I had traveled to the Faroe Islands with my husband, Ric O’Barry (the former Flipper trainer who was featured in the Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove), to investigate why the Faroese continue to hunt whales despite the practice’s apparent cruelty and even though the whale meat is contaminated with mercury and other heavy metals. My answer was met with a wall of silence. For a moment I thought the couple might ask us to leave. Then Helgi, the husband, smiled and said, with what I soon learned was typical Faroese hospitality: “That’s interesting. Let’s talk about it.”
Helgi led me into their cozy kitchen and we sat down at a wood table. The walls were covered with framed photographs: family outings in the mountains, children playing on boats, Christmas mornings. The couple is in their sixties and both of them are retired. I asked if they knew about the health warnings concerning whale meat and, if so, why they still ate it. Helgi, a tall, heavyset man with bright blue eyes, was quick with a response: “Because it tastes so good!” He said he had heard about the toxins in the whale meat, then added, “But we don’t want to hear it.” He covered his ears with his hands in a pantomime of willful ignorance.
His wife Ívun chimed in: “So many foods are unhealthy today, what difference does it make? Besides, how are we supposed to turn down a free meal?”
The distribution of pilot whale meat and blubber in the Faroe Islands follows specific rules laid out in the early nineteenth century and little changed since. Anyone who participates in a hunt is entitled to a free share of the catch. Each person can claim only one share even if he has participated in more than one aspect of the hunt – the corral at sea, the actual kill, the hauling of dead pilot whales onto land, the butchering. In Tórshavn, home to about 20,000 people, those who want a share of the catch need to sign up for it, as there is not enough for everyone.
Whale hunters in the Faroes insist the hunt is noncommercial; “no one profits from it” is the common refrain. But pilot whale can be found for sale in at least one Tórshavn supermarket, and you can also buy pilot whale at a fish stand at the town’s harbor. On a Craigslist-like Faroese Facebook group called Rótikassin (which translates roughly as “jumble sale”) pilot whale is listed for sometimes-substantial amounts of money. At one point last summer, a group member offered 60 liters of pilot whale blubber for $400.
The fact that people are paying to eat whale meat and blubber seems surprising given that the European Union and Faroese health authorities have warned that consumption is dangerous to human health.
Many toxins build up in an animal’s body as you ascend the food chain. This bioaccumulation reaches dangerous levels in top predators such as pilot whales. In 2008, the chief physician for the Faroese Department of Occupational Medicine and Public Health, Pál Weihe, and the islands’ chief medical officer, Høgni Debes Joensen, warned that pilot whales are contaminated with dangerously high levels of mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), as well as DDE, a breakdown product of the insecticide DDT.
In a press statement issued in 2008, they wrote: “The latest analyses show that the mercury concentration of pilot whale remains high, with an average of about 2 micrograms per gram. In the EU, the highest limit value of 1 microgram per gram is only applicable to the most contaminated species of fish. This limit is exceeded by most pilot whales.” The physicians noted that mercury and PCB exposure contribute to Parkinson’s disease in adults, impaired immunity in children, and compromised fetal development. “It is recommended that pilot whale is no longer used for human consumption,” they warned.
The Faroese government chose not to follow the doctors’ recommendations. In June 2011, however, the Faroese Food and Veterinary Agency urged limited consumption of one meal of pilot whale meat and blubber per month for adults weighing 70 kilos (about 150 lbs). Special recommendations were issued for women and girls, who were told to refrain from eating blubber as long as they plan to have children and to not eat whale meat while pregnant or breastfeeding. The kidneys and liver of pilot whales should not be eaten by anyone, the agency said.
The Lervigs said they follow these recommendations and don’t plan to cease consuming whale meat. “We are at the age where it doesn’t matter much what we eat,” Helgi said. He stood up and fetched two plastic bags from the freezer. The bags contained meat and blubber from hunts in 2010. Helgi got a sharp knife from a drawer and began to cut through the raw meat. When he offered me a piece, I declined.
Helgi shrugged. “For centuries the Faroe Islands were cut off from the rest of the world due to our remote location, and we have had to become self-sufficient in order to survive,” he said. He pointed out that the Faroese raise livestock, namely mountain sheep, and both he and Ívun said they would never dream of eating meat from industrialized factory farms on the European mainland. For the Lervigs, it seemed, whale meat is the ultimate comfort food, the food they grew up with, and it appears more wholesome than other options, even if it is contaminated. Helgi said, “Hunting and eating pilot whale is part of who we are.”
This is a Faroese mantra. In May 2012, the Faroese Prime Minister’s Office, in response to consistent international pressure to halt the hunt, released a statement, saying: “Both the meat and blubber of pilot whales have long been – and continue to be – a valued part of the national diet.”
Fair enough, in a way. Each nation has its own peculiar food traditions, after all. But – as I was to learn during that November visit and a follow-up trip Ric and I made in the summer of 2012 – the Faroese tradition goes beyond just eating whales. For many people, the national self-identity is really about killing them.
Top photo: CaptainOates/flickr
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