Whaling and the Faroe Islands

Whale hunting in the Faroe Island normally causes global outrage. Now Mike Day has released a documentary, which took four years to film, The Island and the Whales, that shows the complexity of the issue. Traditionally, the islanders’ annual slaughter of pilot whales is virtually the only occasion when the lives of 50,000 Faroese are noticed by the wider world.

The documentary tells of a disappearing way of life, a population who are now affected by the results by globalisation – and pollution. Whale meat is laced with mercury and other toxins. The dangers of the concentration of pollutants up the oceanic food-chain are clear. A long-term study (over 30 years) by a Faroese doctor has revealed how eating it has impaired islanders’ cognitive function, reduced IQs and increased their risk of Parkinson’s disease. According to the producer ‘our way of life is really ending theirs’.

The film took four years to make. It shows how the Faroe Islanders have moved from a self-sufficient community without electricity and roads to a society with one of the highest proportions of Facebook users.

The whale hunts are notoriously unpredictable. It only occurs if islanders, who are hunting seabirds, chance upon a pod of pilot whales. In the past, whale meat was so important on these barren islands that it was a crime not to report a pod! The islanders herd the 6m mammals into one of 17 designated hunting bays.

‘Whaling in the Faroe Islands in August 2012’
Source: EileenSanda, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

According to Day, the killing of the whales is ‘horrific … horrible to see animals being slaughtered but if you eat meat it comes from that … it’s a harvest for them, free food, and it’s expensive to live there’.

Some way into the film, outsiders appear. Activists from the Sea Shepherd, the anti-whaling charity, arrive in a plush campervan, with expensive boats and a piratical logo, intent on direct action to stop the slaughter. The islanders revolt, quietly, such gunboat diplomacy.

According to Day, locals ‘who hadn’t eaten whale since they were kids suddenly became very defensive of their right to do it. It’s definitely perceived as cultural imperialism. The nations that have polluted the seas have turned up to tell them that eating whale is wrong. To me that embodied so much of our own lack of awareness.’

Thus, the outrage directed towards the islanders is just one part of the story. There are questions about sustainability, the rise in pollution, the effects of globalisation, the biorights of whales (and other populations killed for human consumption), and the imposition of outside views on how the islanders should behave.

For more information on The Island and the Whales go to http://theislandsandthewhales.com/

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