The Whale: superstar of the Ocean

Experts from around the world met at a conference on whaling in the Faroe Islands last month.

Few animals receive as much media attention throughout the world as whales.
The long-finned pilot whale that you find in the North Atlantic, for instance, has also put the relatively small Faroe Islands, a north-western fishing community with centuries-old whale hunting traditions, on the world map.
More than any other animal, the whale has been the subject of myths and legends, of popular meditation and scientific investigation. In other words, the stage is set for an intense and emotional debate.
The whale is, whether we like it or not, the ‘superstar’ of the ocean.

A clash of cultures

The marine mammals of the North Atlantic attracted a group of anthropologists, biologists, policy-makers, whalers, environmentalists, activists from international NGOs and other key figures engaged in the debate on whales and whaling, to a two-day conference last month in – the obvious location – the capital of the Faroe Islands.

The conference entitled ‘Hunting and Protecting Marine Mammals – a Clash of Cultures?’ was organised and hosted by the Nordic Committee on Bioethics, which is part of the Nordic Council of Ministers.
The main objective of this rather unconventional conference was to present and discuss ethical issues relating to the hunting of whales from as many different perspectives as possible.

The fierce ‘opponents’ in what the TV channel Animal Planet calls ‘Whale Wars’ (‘Viking Shores’, 2012) were sitting peacefully at the same tables. The objective was, thus, to break the debate’s longstanding deadlock.
So, what were the lessons from the conference?

It is difficult to summarise the conclusions of ten very different lectures in brief, but the following were some of the core questions and arguments paving the way to a new understanding.

Not an endangered species

The pilot whale is, according to scientific research, not an endangered species.

The Faroese whale hunt does not pose any (quantitative) threat to the species. There are, nevertheless, other larger whales that are endangered by uncontrolled hunt in other parts of the world.

Growing oceanic pollution, on the other hand, is a major risk for the living conditions of the whales as well as for the health of the people eating whale meat and blubber. The Faroese health authorities have for some years now warned people (especially young pregnant women) against eating large quantities of whale meat and blubber.

Animal rights

It is not easy to kill a large wild animal by ‘humane’ methods, even if the hunter, without doubt, always will try to limit the animal’s pain during the hunt.

Animal rights groups often stress the problem of pain and suffering in relation to hunting ventures. But is it possible to kill a wild animal without causing any pain at all?

Fortunately the introduction of new weapons and methods has made the killing of whales much more ‘humane’ and ‘time’ efficient than it used to be. A skilled and responsible hunter is able to kill the whale within seconds.

The ‘brain’ of the animal world

In popular media the whale is not only presented as the ‘superstar’ of the ocean, he is also often portrayed as the ‘brain’ of the animal world.

The supposed intelligence of the marine giants gives the impression that whales are more ‘human’ than other animals. This anthropomorphism makes the whale a more ‘special’ and ‘valued’ animal than other species.

From this angle the whale killing and eating becomes a kind of symbolic cannibalism. This is sometimes presented as a ‘modern’ urban viewpoint which is very far from the hunters’ realities.

The economic perspective

The whale represents a valuable resource which can have a large impact on local communities.

In Húsavík in Northern Iceland, for instance, ‘whale watching’ (not killing) is a main tourist attraction, which creates many jobs in small private businesses.

In the Faroe Islands the whale hunt has been a cherished supplement to the food from fishing and sheep farming. The whale meat and blubber was – and still is today – distributed for free (a totally non-commercial enterprise) to people in the local village community.

The cultural perspective

The Faroese whale hunt is a tradition that Faroe Islanders consider part of their cultural identity.

Does a tradition, critics reply, necessarily have to be defended and upheld? Is it always the ‘right’ decision?

Traditions are changing and there are more and more Faroe Islanders who doubt the ‘need’ for whale hunting in the future.

On the other hand, do Faroe Islanders – along with other whalers in e.g. Greenland – want to change lifestyle because of external pressure from other larger societies?

The political perspective

There are also important aspects of power in the debate on whales.

Lars Walløe of the University of Oslo believes that the introduction of the whale ‘problem’ to the international environmental agenda in the 1970s was intended to turn the focus away from ‘real’ global problems of pollution.

There is also, said Gísli Pálsson from the University of Iceland, a political tension between the large urban centre and the small rural periphery.

The small peripheral communities – Iceland, the Faroes, Saami, Inuit, etc. – are easy targets for the powerful continental ‘empires’.

A fruitful conference

While the conference delegates discussed the ethics of marine mammals in the hall of Hotel Hafnia in the capital, Torshavn, a pilot whale hunt took place in Sandoy further south in the Faroe Islands.

Why does the hunt still take place, in 2012?

Russell Fielding, of the University of Denver, said, in brief, that it “continues mainly because of its provision of food to the Faroese people and the cultural importance that this food provision creates”.

The conference was a success because people with different backgrounds and values concerning whales and whaling got a very rare occasion to exchange views and experiences on the same arena.

There was no ‘war’ because most participants discovered that they had more in common than they had expected.

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