'Whale Wars" Paul Watson on Faroes killing, online debate

This post has been corrected, as in dicated below.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, capitalizing on the tremendous success of their Animal Planet TV show, “Whale Wars,” has now taken on a new battle. With the Japanese fleet’s Antarctic hunt finished for the season, the skull-and-crossbones crew have turned their attention on the Faroe Islands with a new show: “Whale Wars: Viking Shores.”

The second episode of “Viking Shores” airs Friday at 9 p.m. on Animal Planet, and the Faroese are fighting back in defense of their traditional whale hunting in unique fashion. After the second episode on May 4, Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson is squaring off in an online debate with Heri Joensen, lead singer of the Faroese folk-metal band, Tyr. That live-streamed faceoff on the video conference platform Watchitoo will air on the Animal Planet Website and Facebook page at 10 p.m. EDT.

Not, say, the fisheries minister? No, a metal band singer and a high-energy defender of Faroese customs, who has appeared on a "Viking Shores" episode and wrote an anti-Sea Shepherd song called "Rainbow Warrior" (which includes the lyric: "May your ship sink"). Just another odd twist in an already nuanced conflict.  

In the Faroe Islands, unlike the Antarctic campaign, the oceangoing conservation outfit is not hectoring a faceless, corporate, government-subsidized commercial whaling outfit with massive factory ships that kill whales in the name of “research.” On this grouping of 18 small islands in the North Atlantic, a Danish protectorate situated between Iceland and Scotland, the people kill pilot whales by hand, on the shore, as part of a traditional hunt called the “Grind,” (pronounced “grinned”) which residents say is thousands of years old.

The Grind is not pretty, and “Viking Shores” pulls no punches. The Faroese send boats out into the ocean to find pilot whales, which are cetaceans not as large as the fin or minke whales hunted by the Japanese, but are slightly bigger than dolphins. Then they herd the mammals toward one of several dozen beaches on the islands, where residents lie in wait. As the powerful creatures beach themselves in panic, hunters wade into them with long curved hooks and slaughter the whole pod in a bloody frenzy. The Faroese eat a lot of pilot whale.

Graphic stuff, but also supported by a large sector of Faroese society, and Sea Shepherd has approached it differently. The crew came roaring in with their big boats in July 2011, but they didn’t start ramming anybody. Instead, they went ashore, stayed at local hotels, mixed with the Faroese people and announced their willingness to debate anyone, talk to any media, and stop any hunt. Upshot? A small amount of dialog, but also zero whales killed for the two months Sea Shepherd and their cameras were present.

We caught up to Watson in-between campaigns, including Sea Shepherd initiatives to stop shark-finning (for soup) in the South Pacific and to stop the overfishing of bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, both of which also happen during the summer.

LAT: Why bring the TV show to the Faroes?

Paul Watson: We’ve done this before. We did a special with the BBC in 1986 called “Black Harvest.” We went there in ‘83, ‘85, ‘86, 2000, 2010 and 2011. We can’t go every year because of the expenses and everything. We decided now that we had “Whale Wars,” that it would be a good opportunity to do episodes on the Faroes.

LAT: What do the cameras do for your campaign?

PW: Not a single whale was killed while we were there last year. The reasoning on the part of the Faroese was rather funny: They said, Well, if we don’t kill any whales, then you’re not going to have a TV show. So we’re not going to kill any whales. They forgot that our show’s about not killing whales. So we were quite happy with that outcome.

LAT: Were there any changes in the Faroe Islands situation that indicated it was time for a new tactic?

PW: It’s pretty much the same except for one significant change: A lot of young people really don’t want anything to do with it, there. We actually have a segment of the Faroese population that’s now opposed to it. Also, older people, especially mothers, are concerned because of the high mercury content of the pilot whales. In fact, it’s only recommended that people eat it once a month, and pregnant women and children not at all. But of course, the more traditional conservatives decide, ‘Ah, the hell with that.’ It’s like denying global warming. That’s why the Faroese have the highest rate of mercury poisoning of any people on the planet.

LAT: Instead of staying on the boats, you’re going into the community.

PW: Yeah, we wanted to really make it quite clear to them that there was an international movement against what they’re doing. Our crew are from all over the world. At one point, Lamya [Essemlali], she’s president of Sea Shepherd France, she ran into this guy who said he wanted to debate me. He said, ‘Yeah, but Paul Watson, he doesn’t dare come and debate me.’ Well, I was in the hotel, in the pub area, and Lamya grabbed him with the Animal Planet crew and said, ‘He’s here, do you want to debate him?’ And he ran out the door.

I actually tried to set up a public meeting in the Faroes to give our point of view, but every venue refused. For instance, we did have the Hotel Torshavn and a few other places, and we had it arranged, and within a day it was canceled. Obviously due to pressure from somewhere else.

So now, Animal Planet is going to have a debate. I would think they would have me debate somebody from the government or one of their scientists, or even one of their grindmasters, but it ends up I’m debating the lead singer of this group called Tyr, which is some Nordic heavy metal band. So if that’s the best they can find to defend what they’re doing, that should be interesting.

LAT: The Faroese have threatened you with arrest and violence. Are you concerned about the safety of the volunteers there?

PW: We got right into their face, and they backed down. For instance, they told me that if I came to the Faroes that I’d be arrested and that they wanted me for some charge from 10 years ago. I said, OK, well, I’m coming anyway. The police came on board and nothing happened. I think they’re tactic was: We’re not going to give any publicity, we’re not going to provoke. We’re going to just try to ignore these people.

It turned out that our land crew got into more confrontations than our sea crew. It was mainly a female crew, on land. Deborah [Bassett, a Sea Shepherd volunteer] was actually hit by one of the women in the Faroes, and she charged her with assault for it. But mainly it was shoving matches and just people getting into each other’s faces. [Sea Shepherd] drove a van right into the middle of a parade they were having, a National Day Parade, and had pictures of the grind, the kill, all over it. At one point I think they were leading the parade!

LAT: Do you consider the campaign a success?

PW: They didn’t kill any whales in July or August. They did in September after we left.

What’s come out of this is that a Sea Shepherd group has now been set up in Denmark, and a lot of people in Denmark are very much opposed to this. And we actually have people in the Faroe Islands who are now working with us, some of them covertly and some of them quite overtly. What’s good is that we started this discussion and that’s going to make people think about it. I mean, really, this has no place in the 21st century.

We’re arguing that this is illegal under the Bern Convention, the EU regulations. That’s why Norway and Iceland are not members of the EU, because of killing whales. And Europe doesn’t allow that. But the Faroes claim an exemption because they’re a protectorate of Denmark. But what we’re saying is that you can’t be expecting to take subsidies from the EU and then claim an exemption, so we’re putting pressure on Denmark to say: look, you’ve got to comply with the law and stop giving subsidies to your protectorate that’s killing whales. This might be a loophole but we’re going to try and close it.

LAT: Will Sea Shepherd be in the Faroes this July and August?

PW: We will have a land crew in the Faroes this summer, but unfortunately all of our ships are in Australia. There will be an ongoing presence, and hopefully it will be led by Sea Shepherd Denmark, so it’ll be the Danes and the Faroese themselves that will be opposing it. That’s really the most ideal thing to do.

[For the Record: 9:40 a.m., April 26, 2012: An earlier version of this post originally said that the discussion between Watson and Joensen would happen April 27. It is happening May 4]

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