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Activists Square Off Against Whale Hunters in the Faroe Islands

A bitter fight over whales—and the right to kill them—is being waged in the Faroe Islands right now.

by Melissa Cronin
Jul 24 2015, 12:20pm

Whale hunting in the Faroe Islands. Photo: Ed Ou for Motherboard

A bitter fight for whales—and the right to kill them—is being waged in the Faroe Islands right now.

On Thursday, a large pod of some 150 pilot whales was herded into a cove halfway between Norway and Iceland, where hunters waited with knives. Before long, the pod had been slaughtered, turning the waters off the beach of Bøur fire engine red. A Dutch Naval vessel guarded the cove—and the whales—from any outsiders.

Just hours later, yet another hunt was under way 30 miles from the first. A pod of at least 50 cetaceans, the species unknown, were being driven into another beach, this time at Tórshavn, the capital and largest city of the Faroe Islands.

It's part of the yearly grindadráp, or grind (pronounced like "grinned"), a 1,000-year-old whale hunting tradition in the Faroe Islands, an autonomous nation within the Danish kingdom. The hunt has long been controversial, and last year Motherboard traveled to the Islands to document the Faroese hunters and the activists who antagonize them.

This year, the protesters were back. As the whales were being brought into the cove, two protesters were arrested at sea. According to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a nonprofit focused on marine wildlife conservation, activists Rosie Kunneke of South Africa and Christophe Bondue of France were transferred to the Faroese police when they reached land. Another pair of Sea Shepherd activists were already sitting in a Dutch jail earlier this week for the same crime—interfering in the Faroe Islands' annual traditional whale hunt.

A spokesman for the Faroese government said that the activists were released and that a court date had been set. Under a new law called the Faroese Pilot Whaling Act, a measure meant to crack down on anyone who interferes with the hunt, all of the activists could be jailed for up to two years.

During the grind, entire families flock to the beaches to receive pods of pilot whales and the occasional dolphin pod that are driven in by speedboats. The Faroese argue that the hunt not only provides food, but also gives the locals a sense of community and cultural attachment. A total of 33 pilot whales were killed last year and around 1,300 were killed in 2013. Faroese officials say that the hunt, which captures less that 1 percent of the stock, is also a sustainable source of meat for its nearly 50,000 residents—though this claim has been challenged by a report released by ASCOBAN, an agreement on the protection of small cetaceans (whales and dolphins), of which several countries including United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Germany and others are members.

Activists say that the hunts are cruel—the whales are killed by a knife through the head and spinal cord, and there is some debate about how long it takes them to die. Whales and dolphins, they argue, are intelligent animals with strong social capabilities that can understand the death of their companions. While commercial whaling was banned under an International Whaling Commission moratorium in 1986, small whales are not covered under the ban. Pilot whales, they say, should be afforded the same protections.

There's also the issue of the whale meat itself. In 2008, the Faroe Island's chief physician and chief medical officer recommended that pilot whale meat, which carries high levels of both mercury and persistent organic compounds from industrial pollutants in the ocean, should no longer be eaten. One 2012 study even found that people who were exposed to higher mercury levels from the grind blubber and meat exhibited negative effects on the memory, reaction time, and language skills.

Despite all this, the Faroese continue to wade waist-deep into the waters off their small archipelago. The grind continues—and the activists follow.