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The nature of change: Are we allowed to clean up other people´s yards?

Campaigner Astrid Fuchs shares her personal reflection on her recent trip to the Faroe Islands.

“You can´t tell a fisheries nation not take something from the sea. Or at least you need to give them some time to get their head around that thought”, is something that an Icelandic colleague recently said to me and I suppose this is not only true for Iceland but also applies to the Faroe Islands.

I´ve recently had the pleasure of travelling to these beautiful islands in the middle of the North Atlantic. Before my trip I was told that I was in for a treat, that the Faroese where an incredibly open, friendly, and helpful people. I wasn´t disappointed and I must admit quite surprised at the level of hospitality and openness shown to me.

Some core questions of animal conservation and animal protection work

Regarding most aspects of wildlife conservation and animal protection there are a few core questions which need to be considered and which are much easier asked than answered. Most of them apply to the Faroe Islands as well. I can´t claim to know all the answers to them, but our collective response to these questions shapes the international governance of our shared natural heritage.

 Who do whales belong to? Can they be the resource of one country? Can you travel to another country and tell its inhabitants what not to do? How to protect a species in another country? Is the Faroese Grind commercial or not and does it matter? Which actions are justified by tradition and which aren´t? What is an acceptable reason for hunting whales or any other animal in the first place?

For a few years now there has been a lot of talk about a change happening on the Faroe Islands. A change in attitudes, in approach, a change of heart really.  I am happy to report that from what I saw on the Islands, from the conversations I had with both, people for and people against the Grind, I very much feel this to be true. These days, many of the conservationists and whale and dolphin advocates who come to the Faroe Islands don´t come to point fingers. They come to listen and learn from the Faroese people and of course they also come hoping that they too will be listened to and that people might learn something about their reasons to care for the lives of whales and dolphins. In return, the Faroese people listen patiently and are happy to talk about their culture, their view of things and the different aspects of the drive hunts from a Faroese perspective.

Attitudes are changing and people are listening, an eye to eye communication has started. This is clearly a good thing and the most important requirement for any fruitful debate. It is something that needs to be nourished and treated with great care.  My feeling is that change is a process and we need to keep that process going until the change we hope to see has happened.

It is also very important that people on both sides of the conversation need to get their facts straight. There is no room for pointing fingers since there really isn´t any ground here to go and do so.

Yes, “we” in the western world and the rest of Europe, in the USA and elsewhere do have a lot of factory farms and a severe lack of animal welfare standards and more traditions harmful to animals than can be counted. We clearly need to clean up our own backyard, no question about that.

So can you go and “educate” people, the people of another country, even, if you yourself aren´t perfect? Do you have to clean up your own mess first? Or can you do both, clean up here and help clean up there? And what justifies your interest in another country´s “mess”, also considering that where you see a “mess” they might see a perfectly clean yard? And who is to say what a “mess” is?

Some vital questions to be asked and there are no easy answers and these answers might not even be the same for everyone. While for example I consider myself among those who think of themselves as  “world citizens”, part of the global community of human beings and have always felt a little confused by the concept of “nationality” and “countries”, I very well know how important these concepts are for a lot of people and how much they treasure the thought of nationality and the sense of belonging they get from that.

Step two?

First step: Listen and learn. Absolutely, but that is a two way street. In the end, the question whether a country can, in this day and time, claim that a migrating species which happens to pass through their territory, is actually there for them to take and is solely their resource, remains.

Waiting for the change to happen, waiting for the whalers to grow too old to hunt and for enough children and young people to be disinterested in taking part in the Grind, could take a long time. Maybe before that happens the meat has become so toxic that no one can eat it anymore. Maybe the pilot whale numbers will have been so severely depleted by the various threats these animals face in todays world, from climate change to habitat loss, pollution and unsustainable hunts, that there will be no issue anymore because there are no pilot whales left to be taken.

So what to do?

We hope for the dialogue to continue and for the first step – mutual respect and honest dialogue – to bear fruit and lead to the next step. And there needs to be a second step on the way to change, otherwise there is only stagnation. It is of course better to be stagnant in a situation where people talk and listen than just shout at each other – but both kinds don´t help the whales.

Reasons for change

All things considered, there might by some facts that eventually lead to the discovery of some common ground and the possible ending of the Grindadráp. I will not even talk about the health issue in relation of the toxicity of the meat here, because at the end of the day, in a perfect and unpolluted world, this shouldn´t be the reason why not to hunt pilot whales in the first place. The whales have a right to lead a healthy life and so do humans.

Today, there are a number of people on the Faroe Islands questioning the need for the continuation of the Grindadráp and their number is growing. More and more people on the islands are getting interested in whales and dolphins beyond their use as a food resource. For me there is no question that it will be these people and the ones joining them, who will help bring about the much desired change.

These days, the Faroese people don´t depend on the meat from the Grind anymore. There is a severe lack of knowledge and research on pilot whale populations in the North Atlantic and no one knows how sustainable the Grindadráp really is. While the hunts are not commercial there surely is a commercial aspect here, as you can buy the meat in supermarkets and restaurants. And, most importantly, no matter how perfect the conditions, there will never be a clean and quick way to die for a whale in a Grindadráp.

According to almost everyone I spoke to – health officials, whalers and anti-whalers alike – the consumption of pilot whale meat has gone down significantly. So far though, the number of whales killed on average has not gone down. It´s an opportunistic hunt and when a pod is spotted and a Grind is possible, the whole pod is taken.

Considering aspects of demand and supply as well as sustainability, the rules applying to the Grind and the situation as it is now don’t make sense anymore. And when the rules stop making sense they need to be changed.

The Faroese government has to take responsibility here. The number of whales taken should be measured against the possible demand. There needs to be straight forward, science based legislation, based on the latest research and honestly considering and applying aspects of animal welfare, which doesn´t leave any wiggle room. Reduce the number of animals that can be taken per year. Track what is happening with the surplus meat. Define the demand.  And ultimately: Define the necessity.