Faroe Island conservationists face two years in prison for not aiding whale killings

Updated | A "draconian" new law in the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic could see Farose citizens and conservationists face up to two years in prison if they fail to report sightings of migrating whales and dolphins to the Faroese authorities, or obstruct the slaughter of these animals in what is known as the "grindadráp" or "grind".

While reporting sightings of pilot whales and dolphins has long been a requirement under Faroese law, as of 20 May of this year, anyone who fails to report a sighting could face a 25,000 Kroner fine - just over €3,000. If they then reoffend after the first conviction or if they violate the grind in more than one way, they face two years in prison, the Faroese police told Newsweek. So far, no arrests have been made.

The grind, which even Faroese officials admit is "dramatic and bloody by its nature", can take place at any time of year, with entire communities often taking part. Dolphins and pilot whales are herded into bays by boats before they are killed. Since the start of this year, those involved in the killing have been required to use a regulation spinal lance designed by a Faroese veterinarian, which is inserted through the animal's neck to break its spinal cord and ensures that the whales lose consciousness and die within a few seconds.

According to Faroese authorities it takes a few seconds to kill each whale, and the entire pod is normally killed in less than 10 minutes. The hunt is well regulated, and Faroese law explicitly states that the hunt is to be conducted in such a way that causes the whales as little suffering as possible.

Earlier this month, 154 pilot whales were reportedly slaughtered in a single day on Miðvágur beach on the island of Vágar and yesterday a second slaughter occurred, with the conservation activist group Sea Shepherd estimating that between 20 and 30 pilot whales were killed.

The new law has outraged Sea Shepherd, who currently have three boats patrolling the area, and who have vowed to do everything within the law to disrupt the slaughters, which they describe as "needless". They claim the new law is specifically directed at them, in order to stop their campaigns.

Rosie Kunneke, land team leader of the group's current campaign on the Islands, believes the new law is "discriminatory" and "draconian" and is in effect an "anti-Sea Shepherd law".

"It's almost like a police state, the way they are pushing back on resistance," she says.

"We all know they are trying to scare us. But we don't scare that easily. We will do anything legally possible to save those whales", she continues, although admits that the new law may well result in more of her colleagues being detained.

According to the Faroese police, a series of meetings were set up in order to explain the legislation to Sea Shepherd representatives. The police reject Sea Shepherd's claims that they are "threatening tourists" with the new law.

"We are not threatening tourists," Linda Hesselberg, deputy chief prosecutor for the Faroe Islands tells Newsweek. "We have explained to Sea Shepherd in the spirit of dialogue what the new rules are." Hesselberg described the meetings as "constructive".

"The police have two tasks," Hesselberg continues. "Firstly to protect people's rights to free speech; Sea Shepherd has a right to disagree with these killings and they should be allowed to express that within the frames of the laws on the Faroe Islands. We also have an obligation to maintain public order and to make sure legal actions can take place on the island, and according to the law, these killings are legal."

The government of the Faroe Islands confirmed to Newsweek that the existing legislation on catching pilot whales – 'Grindalógin' – contains a requirement to notify the authorities when pilot whales are located in order to ensure that the authorities are able to grant or deny permission for a hunt. They say the law exists to prevent illegal interference in the catching of pilot whales.

The government also confirmed that the maximum penalty for breaching the 'grindalógin' is now two years, and applies when the breach is intentional or due to gross negligence and leads to "injury to people or whales, or damage to the environment or material property – or where there was immediate danger of such injury or damage". The government does not foresee the new law affecting the island's tourism industry.

Earlier this year, the prime minister of the Faroe Islands, Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen, said: "Since the dawn of time, mankind has hunted animals for food. Whaling in the Faroe Islands is sustainable and fully regulated, and is carried out under supervised conditions with an emphasis on animal welfare. It is a natural part of Faroese life and pilot whale meat and blubber provide a valued food supplement for many Faroese households."

Update: Following the publication of this article, the government of the Faroe Islands issued a press release saying that the legislation would only apply to those driving whales either away from or towards the shore, and therefore tourists would not be prosecuted.