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Heart of Darkness: How Whale Hunting Survives in the Faroe Islands

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Given the intimate connection between Faroese identity and the pilot whale hunt, it’s not surprising that the Faroese are cautious when talking to outsiders about the tradition. Those Faroese who are opposed to the practice are willing to discuss the issue with foreigners, but they do so in hushed voices. I met one girl in her twenties, a clerk at a Tórshavn bookstore, who spoke passionately about the suffering of the whales during the killing. But as we talked she lowered her voice, and kept looking over her shoulder to make sure we were not overheard. “A lot of people react to my views by accusing me of being disloyal to Faroese culture,” she explained.

photo Finur Justinussen

Despite the cultural prohibition against criticizing the grindadráp, local opposition to the hunt appears to be on the rise. During my second visit to the Faroe Islands, I was approached by locals who oppose pilot whaling and are not afraid to say so publicly. One of them is Ingi Sørensen, a professional diver and underwater photographer who is fiercely against the slaughter. Sørensen has created a Facebook group called Faroese Against Pilot Whale Hunting. So far, the group has about 220 members. “I wanted to create a forum where those in the Faroe Islands who oppose the pilot whale slaughter can gather and share their thoughts freely and without fear,” he told me. “There is no justification to wipe out entire schools of pilot whales, and the much-used argument of maintaining the hunt as a Faroese tradition has no validity.”

According to Sørensen and other opponents of the hunt, there is a generational divide among Faroese on the issue. Older people cannot imagine the Faroe Islands without the pilot whale hunt. Many younger people are ambivalent about the tradition; to them it seems an anachronism. “Pilot whales have kept us alive for centuries,” Sørensen, 52, said. “They have saved us from starvation. Today, their meat is so toxic our own health authorities tell us it’s too dangerous to eat.”

A woman in her twenties who wanted to remain anonymous told me: “I feel that pilot whaling is becoming a huge cultural burden on the young people here. We are told that pilot whaling is an important part of our culture, and one that we need to keep alive. But pilot whaling is not a cultural aspect that I have an interest in maintaining.”

Beyond the generational divide, there is also a gender gap when it comes to the hunt. Women, especially young mothers, are not enthusiastic about feeding their families meat known to contain dangerous toxins. Dr. Pál Weihe, coauthor of the 2008 statement about contaminants in whale meat, is convinced that the hunt will end in the not-too-distant future.

photo Finur Justinussen

“Women make up a significant part of the family, and as soon as they limit their intake of pilot whale, things will start to happen,” Dr. Weihe told me during a conversation in his office. “Women carry the tremendous responsibility of ensuring the health of children to come and therefore filter out any arguments of history, culture, and politics. They have a lot to say about a family’s diet, and we will see a drastic reduction in the consumption of pilot whale overall.”

Aggi Ásgerð Ásgeirsdóttir is one of those women who refuse to serve pilot whale meat to her family. An artist and a mother of three, Ásgeirsdóttir lives in a classic Faroese wooden house on a hill overlooking Tórshavn – the kind of place that could be a postcard for Faroese culture. But she has no interest in participating in the tradition of the grindadráp. “We don’t depend on pilot whaling for survival any longer,” she said. “The opposite is true: To ensure our own health, and the health of generations to come, we need to stop viewing pilot whales as a food source.”

Ásgeirsdóttir told me she has many friends who share her views. “In the Faroe Islands, we often ask each other, ‘Do you eat pilot whale?’ in much the same way others might ask, ‘Do you smoke?’” She then added: “The pilot whale slaughter is not a part of my identity. Times have changed. Our habits, our culture, and how we perceive Faroese identity need to reflect that.”

Listening to Ásgeirsdóttir and other young women, it seemed that a quiet rebellion is occurring in the Faroe Islands. There is no open, organized boycott against whale meat. But an underground, unheralded dinner table revolt is happening across the archipelago as young women refuse to eat whale meat themselves or feed it to their children. This reminds me of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata. In that story the women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands as a way of protesting the never-ending Peloponnesian War. A similar gender-based revolt is occurring in the Faroes – only in this case it is a protest against the war on whales, and in place of a sexual revolution there is a culinary one. Once again, women hold the key to halting the killing.

Traditions are like chains: It only takes a break in one link to demolish the whole thing. This is about to happen to the whaling tradition in the Faroe Islands. During my time there, I spoke to many people – both men and women – who eat whale meat and blubber themselves but won’t feed it to their children. Eventually, then, a new generation will come of age that does not have a taste for pilot whale meat. It is to be hoped that they will lose a taste for the killing as well.

This post was originally published by the Earth Island Journal.


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9:41AM PST on Dec 23, 2012

interesting article, thanks for sharing :)

7:09AM PST on Dec 15, 2012

when they say "not for profit" they mean "no mr. German fellow, and Miss Chicago chick, you cannot buy some whale meat"

4:25PM PST on Dec 14, 2012

The comments page is not a place for an argument. You should not get credits for arguing. I'm flagging all comments referring to another comment as inappropriate.

2:25AM PST on Dec 13, 2012

Nope, Daniel.......absolutely no bitterness and no nastiness whatsoever. The insults just keep coming, don't they? I explained the history of my avatar, that you refer to as my wolf hybrid "friend". I said very clearly that I respected her, but I don't grieve for her. Over the years, I've lost many pets and animal companions and some I genuinely DID grieve for

Now we're being blessed with quotes from people few, if anybody has ever heard of. Why does that not surprise me? At least post something relevant to this topic.

BTW, please also stop addressing me. I asked you last night to stop directing comments to me personally as it had no purpose. If you can't repect that, I will take necessary measures about it. Just so you realize, to BE insulted, one has to have respect for the person hurling the insults. Hope that "clarifies" it a bit for you.

2:56AM PST on Dec 12, 2012

"An unclarified mind represses its own faults and then projects them on all opponents."

R. Collier

2:48AM PST on Dec 12, 2012

I never personally attacked you Diane.

I also offered sympathy for the passing of your wolf hybrid friend, but instead of accepting it with the compassion it was offered in, you reacted with bitterness and nastiness.

You now leave this message saying 'let it go'. I said that we would agree to disagree last night and offered peace and light to you, but here you are continuing on, intent on arguing online, and claiming you are a victim of personal attacks and vendettas.

I let 'it' go long ago.
I hope you eventually do too.

10:57PM PST on Dec 11, 2012

Daniel, a final response to your now very personal attacks, "Paranoid? No, silly, I was pointing out that you made the lettuce comment BECAUSE you checked my profile and saw I was vegan and then claimed your innocent 'A-Ha! I was right!' when I called you on it. ".........actually, I included being disrespected and being judged and attacked by vegans in Care.2 not because of anything seen in your profile. At that time, I hadn't checked it out, period, and even when I finally did, I only read as far as the top part where one usually provides info about their age and where they live. I never scrolled all the way thru yours, and never read a thing about your dietary choices. It never occurred to me at the time you were vegan, just that you might live elsewhere, might be very young and naive. You had disrespected my opinions, judged ME for what I'd said about my beliefs and opinions as if I knew NOTHING about the issue. YOU had said that the Faroese could eat "other than", and that's when I mentioned not being able to exist on lettuce. It had NOTHING to do with your personal eating habits. Then, after YOU said you were vegan, everything "fell into place".

Now, let it go.

10:37PM PST on Dec 11, 2012

"Diane , so if I am hungry and I am quite sure I am stronger than you..I do have the right to eat I correct?"...........Anando, since I don't live in an area in the jungle where cannablism is the "option" or legal, I doubt it. You could try, but then you'd be at risk for being charged with murder if you were caught. I think Jeffrey Dahmer found that one out. Your "analogy" is pretty far out and you know it. Sounds to me like the typical stretch of a vegan or A/R activist who is grasping at straws for credibility. Killing animals for consumption, unless an endangered species or wildlife without proper permits is illegal. Cannibalism is illegal, at least in the U.S. We're discussing the killing of a species of marine life (not human) in another country where it is legal. Whether you approve of killing and eating animals is not the issue. If you are vegan and don't approve, that is a matter of your beliefs. If you want laws to change, work on that thru the courts. Don't try to lay a "guilt trip" on those of us who are not vegan.

10:32PM PST on Dec 11, 2012

Daniel, to clarify, and then let's please let this go as far as any further discussion between you and "wolf friend" was my daughter's pet, and she wasn't pure wolf. She was a hybrid..........a domesticated animal and not even mine, but I did care for her often, specifically when she was in heat as I had the acreage and a facilities to keep her from being bred. She lived a long and happy life, and passed away at the age of 16. I am not "grieving", nor have I ever "grieved" over her. I loved her and respected her. She was a huge animal and scared the crap out of people unused to seeing such a big "dog", even though with floppy ears, she didn't look like a wolf. She was the most gentle animal I'd ever been around, though.

9:19AM PST on Dec 11, 2012


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