Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Let them be shepherds of sharks instead

The backs of their black leather jackets were adorned with the image of a human skull, beneath which a shepherd’s crook and Neptune’s trident crossed to complete the image of pirate of the high seas.

The logo seems an odd one for an organisation dedicated to “conservation” rather than plunder and slaughter, but then Sea Shepherd (www.seashepherd.org) is riddled with mistruth and misrepresentation.

What seemed even more odd was these people turning up at the reception of the poshest hotel in the Faroe Islands to ask if they could park their ramshackle collection of pirate vans and paraphernalia in the hotel car park “for security’s sake”.

The Reception team politely informed these surprise “guests” that, should there be room left in the car park once all paying guests had checked in, then that shouldn’t be a problem.

“We’ve been told not to confront them or provoke them in any way,” explained the hotel team, as I expressed my surprise that this bunch would be welcome anywhere within a mile of the hotel: after all, I had witnessed them at work chivvying and lobbying guests at other locations in the islands over the previous few days.

“Them” is a crew of about 500 Sea Shepherd supporters, encamped on these remote North Atlantic islands with the aim of disrupting the “grind”, which is the hundreds of years old practice of herding pilot whales onto beaches, where they are slaughtered and their meat shared according to principles of most need, with the sick and infirm at the top of that list.

Their primary purpose in setting up encampments at hotels is, of course, nothing whatsoever to do with their own security: rather it is to intimidate those enjoying the fruits of the young but gradually blossoming tourism industry in islands that were named a few years ago by experts at National Geographic, the world’s favourite unspoiled island destination.

In reality, few people will visit the Faroe Islands on holiday without first finding out enough to know that, alongside their quite breath-taking natural beauty and the distinctiveness of their Viking-Celtic culture, the islands are where pods of pilot whales are driven ashore for slaughter, often in quite large numbers.

That is the bald statement of fact about the grind, which is not – as sometimes suggested – some kind of “annual ritual”.  To understand the grind you need to understand Faroese culture and the origins of the people themselves.

Today, the Faroe islanders are an affluent people, though their society is afflicted by some of the ills associated with insularity, not least the drip-drip-drip of depopulation, most especially among younger women. But that affluence is relatively recent: for hundreds of years the islanders were effectively prisoners of successive Scandinavian kingdoms, which imposed brutal trading monopolies, keeping the population at the very edge of starvation. It was forbidden for a Faroese to trade with anyone other than the monopoly or even to own a boat from which to fish the rich waters around the islands.

The 18 islands themselves comprise layers of basalt, eroded by the wild Atlantic into cliffs that can rise sheer by more than 2,000ft. On the thin soils of this sub-Arctic landscape you can grow the ubiquitous angelica (planted everywhere the Vikings travelled), redcurrants, rhubarb (in abundant profusion) and the cute little Faroese potato. And that’s about it.

So, the early inhabitants relied on seabirds and their eggs for survival. However, from time to time, the islands would be visited by a “gift from God” – a school of pilot whales. Not only could these cetaceans provide meat, but their blubber was rich in the vitamins that the islanders were largely deprived of, being without fresh fruit and veg.

The grind consequently became embedded in Faroese culture, with every able man expected to take part in the hunt, which might account for just tens but often hundreds of whales. But let’s get one thing straight: the pilot whale can not by any stretch of the imagination be described as an endangered species: its numbers in the North Atlantic are estimated at 800,000. So to get round this inconvenient fact, Sea Shepherd loosely interchanges between terms like “whale” and “dolphin” to imply that these animals are just like the cute ones you might encounter in the water park in Florida, or wherever.

These days the whales are killed by a single knife stroke to the spinal cord: it’s swift and effective. It is also very messy: a 20ft whale contains an awful lot of blood and no-one can pretend that a blood-red sea is a pretty sight. But then, the controlled environment of an abattoir is no picnic either, so what’s the big deal about sustainable harvesting of a natural resource as opposed to the organised exploitation of captive animals? It would surely be better for Sea Shepherd to focus its not insubstantial resources on genuine conservation issues, such as the black market in shark fins (which it does to some effect). But the troubling thing for these volunteers is that they are uncomfortable with the concept that the people of advanced nation can still indulge in what they see as barbarism: it offends their sensibilities and so they have decided to conduct a witch-hunt not just against the whale-hunters but against the Faroe islanders as a nation.

Their logo for the so-called Operation Grindstop originally included a bloodied Faroese flag – the Faroese flag is precious to the Faroese people, having been granted to the merchant fleet by the British during the wartime “friendly occupation” of the islands. The Faroese vessels that ferried fish from Iceland to the UK, running the gauntlet of U-boats and mines saw the loss of more men per capita than suffered by any other nation in the war.

So, to defile the Faroese flag – a potent symbol of the islands’ status as an independent protectorate of the Danish Crown – is rather like burning the Stars and Stripes. In deference, therefore, to the modest kernel of support they may enjoy among Faroese natives, the Sea Shepherds changed the logo and filmed a “press conference” on the harbour at Tórshavn. Unfortunately, they referred repeatedly in this to the “grind”, rhyming with “mind”, whereas it is pronounced with a short “i”. One wonders if they ever actually talked with their kernel of supporters.

Sea Shepherd boasts that, during its 2011 Operation Ferocious Isles, “not a single pilot whale was killed while Sea Shepherd patrolled the islands”. This is a somewhat disingenuous claim, as – unusually – no pilot whales chose to visit the islands that summer. Such is the nature of God’s bounty. It made for very bad TV for the Discovery Channel, which had been promised footage of valiant eco-warriors preventing a slaughter and had to make do with ancient archive footage.

No-one could pretend that the grind is a pretty sight…

A good Faroese friend suggests it is very unlikely that the Sea Shepherds will endure a similar fiasco this summer, so we await the outcome, which may well see the spilling of more than just whale blood.

As for the future, well that same friend once commented to me on the beach at Gøta, venue for the islands’ annual rock extravaganza, that the sands had been replete with whale carcasses just days earlier.

“What would you do if whales were spotted today in the middle of the festival, among all these crowds?” I asked.

My friend rubbed his chin thoughtfully and drew breath: “That is a very difficult question, but – you know – I think our instinct would prevail and we would drive the whales ashore anyway.”

In the end, Sea Shepherd will not stop the grind, but other factors may: already Faroese scientists counsel women of child-bearing age against eating whale, because of high levels of heavy metals and other contaminants at the top of the food chain. My guess is that the grind will be largely a thing of the past within 20 years or so. In the meantime I suggest Sea Shepherd stick to the shark fins.

Stan Abbott has a vested interest in defending the Faroe Islanders: he has worked for more than 12 years with the national airline, Atlantic Airways (www.atlantic.fo) and the islands' tourism authorities  (www.visitfaroeislands.com).