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Equal, but opposite

When foreign activists protest Faroese whale hunts this summer the Faroese will respond by banding together and embracing the tradition even more tightly
The catch of the day, served up with a side of resistance

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This summer, Sea Shepherd, a maritime conservation group, is once again in the Faroe Islands seeking to influence public opinion about the grindadráp, community whale hunts made infamous by bloody images of sometimes hundreds of slaughtered wales.

If the turn events play out as they have in previous years, Sea Shepherd’s protests will stoke the ire of many outside the North Atlantic island group. For the Faroese themselves, however, the effect will be to further entrench resistance to what they feel is an assault on their culture.

“This is Newton’s third law of physics,” says Ólavur Sjúrðarberg, the chair of Grindamannafelagið, a Faroese whaling association. “Push in one direction and you create a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction. It’s that simple.”

SEE RELATED: Cultural clashes make Sea Shepherd campaign counterproductive

As an example of the effects the Sea Shepherd protests are having, Sjúrðarberg points to attendance numbers for a course that teaches proper killing techniques; some 3,000 people – or about one tenth of the country’s population – have attended since the mandatory course began being offered in February.

In what has become a modern saga pitting conservation against tradition, Sea Shepherd has demonstrated in the Faroes since 2011. In May the group announced that it would do so again this year, and when the first hunt of the year took place this weekend, the group lost no time making its opinion known about it.

“The beaches of the Faroe Islands are once again red with the blood of hundreds of slaughtered pilot whales,” Alex Cornelissen, the organisation’s chief executive, said in a statement. “Without the presence of Sea Shepherd, shining a spotlight on these ferocious shores, this massacre will continue, unabated.”

Sea Shepherd’s complaint is that the Faroese are unnecessarily conducting mass killings of an animal the group considers to be intelligent and social. The Faroese, on the other hand, see the hunt as a matter of taking advantage of a natural resource and of something more basic: food.

SEE RELATED: Can’t stop this

Sea Shepherd’s arguments, according to Sjúrðarberg, make it clear that its members fail to see the hunt in context.

“When you talk to these people it becomes apparent that they don’t know very much about life here in the North. They see our islands only in the summer when everything is green and beautiful, but they have never been here in the stormy, cold winter.”

That Grindamannafelagið and Sea Shepherd disagree is not due to a lack of trying. Whaling representatives have, in previous years, attended meetings with prominent representatives from Sea Shepherd, but, Sjúrðarberg says, it helped little.

“Some of them are reasonable, but most of them are fanatic and impossible to talk with. As things are today, I don’t believe finding common ground is possible.”

Even though Grindamannafelagið generally keeps a lower profile than Sea Shepherd, it, too, seeks to sway public opinion to its side, mostly through Grind Facts, a website it set up to offer information in English about the hunt from the islanders’ perspective. A second website, this one created by the Faroese authorities, seeks to do the same.

SEE RELATED: Let my people trade

Although neither site can do much to avert people’s eyes from bloody images of traditional killing methods, Sjúrðarberg, like most Faroese, argues that shouldn’t be the aim. Critics turned off by blood and slaughter are the ones who, in his mind have it wrong: consuming animals for food requires them to be slaughtered in one way or another. Doing it themselves in a community hunt, he argues, is part of Faroese heritage.

“Our ancestors came from Norway hundreds of years ago,” he says. “They brought with them our language, our way of life and our ancient techniques for whaling. Actually, I believe that we should apply for getting our techniques on Unesco’s heritage list.”

What this summer’s hunt will bring is still uncertain. Sjúrðarberg, however, remains convinced that even with the pressure – or perhaps because of it – the grindadráp will persist.

“Pilot whaling is fundamental for our livelihood. We will never fish our last fish, and we will never hunt the last whale. But it is our duty to ensure that everything we extract from the sea is done sustainably and as humanely as possible.

This article was produced as part of a collaboration between The Arctic Journal and NORA Region Trends.