On the Frontlines: An Interview with Peter Hammerstedt

By Marlena White

Name: Peter Hammerstedt

Affiliation: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Bio: Peter Hammerstedt is a regular cast member of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars,” which covers the anti-whaling efforts of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He will also appear on “Whale Wars: Viking Shores,” premiering Friday, April 27, at 9:00 PM (ET). The series will focus on Operation Ferocious Isles, the Sea Shepherd’s campaign against whaling in the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic. Peter is passionate about animal rights and has often put himself in harm’s way to protect them. When he is not working on Sea Shepherd campaigns, he is pursuing a degree in Media and Communications at Stockholm University and actively campaigning with the Swedish Animal Rights Alliance.

Peter Hammarstedt can be seen on Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars: On Viking Shores.” (Photo credit: Animal Planet)

How did the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society become involved with whaling in the Faroe Islands?

Sea Shepherd has a long history of both bringing attention to and intervening in the pilot whale slaughter on the Faroe Islands, known as “The Grind.” Captain Paul Watson launched two ship-based campaigns to oppose the hunt in 1985 and 1986 and again in 2000. On all three occasions, no pilot whales were killed while Sea Shepherd patrolled the islands. In 1986, Sea Shepherd brought a film team from the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) to the Faroe Islands in order to capture the cruelty of the hunt, resulting in the award-winning documentary Black Harvest. The film captures a dramatic confrontation of when a Faroese gunboat pursues the Sea Shepherd’s vessel and attacks them with tear gas, in an unsuccessful attempt to seize the ship and arrest the crew.

Whale Wars until now has focused on illegal whaling in the Antarctic by Japanese fishermen. Whale Wars: Viking Shores, however, focuses on a form of whaling that is both legal and part of a long tradition and cultural identity. What were some of the unique challenges of this mission?

I would argue that whaling in the Faroe Islands is not legal. The long-finned pilot whale is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species because there is no information on global trends in population. Additionally, the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats classifies the long-finned pilot whale as “strictly protected” under Appendix II. The Faroe Islands are not a member of the European Union; however, Denmark is and the Faroe Islands are a Danish Protectorate, which means that although the Faroe Islands are self-governing, Denmark still controls police, defense, foreign policy, and currency. Denmark is a signatory to a convention that makes the slaughter of any cetacean illegal within the European Union—therefore the Faroe Islands should have to abide by it.

Regarding tradition, I don’t think that tradition can ever be used as a justification for cruelty, or for not abiding by international conservation law.

Since the Faroese have been slaughtering pilot whales for hundreds of years, dating back to the 1500s, opposition to the hunt always raises a very emotional reaction from them. From having visited the Faroe Islands, I know that there is a lot more to Faroese culture than the pilot whale slaughter and I would much rather that they be known internationally for their music, poetry, and beautiful landscapes.

What do you think was the biggest achievement of Operation Ferocious Isles?

I think that the biggest achievement of Operation Ferocious Isles was that no pilot whales were killed while Sea Shepherd patrolled the islands. We heard through unofficial sources that the hunt leaders had all agreed not to hunt while we were present during July and August. These are traditionally the bloodiest months of the season. We estimate that our intervention saved the lives of at least 500 pilot whales.

The show aimed to give more of a face to your opposition, who are local villagers participating in a tradition that dates back hundreds of years. Did the interaction with the locals and the more extensive coverage of their side of the story challenge any of the crew’s preconceptions or make them look at the issue in a new light? Do you think it will challenge the show’s viewers in any way?

“Viking Shores” is different from past seasons of “Whale Wars” because the whalers themselves participated in the show. For many years now, Animal Planet has approached the Japanese about putting a film crew aboard one of their whaling ships; the Japanese have always refused. Whaling in the Antarctic is strictly commercial, differentiating itself from “The Grind” in the Faroe Islands, where the pilot whale meat is shared among the community. Regardless, this does not excuse the killings and I would still argue that both hunts are a violation of international conservation law.

We were in a unique position to have an open dialogue with the local Faroese population, an opportunity that we’re not afforded with the poachers in Antarctica. Those interactions proved to me that there is a growing body of younger Faroese who have no interest in the pilot whale hunt. Unfortunately, those voices are not always heard.

How effective do you think the Sea Shepherds’ efforts were in changing the mindset of the local whalers? What do you think the most effective strategies are in changing hearts and minds in regards to whaling, especially among those actively involved in it?

Faroese children grow up hearing stories of Captain Paul Watson’s previous campaigns in the Faroe Islands, almost painting him as some kind of boogie-man! So when Captain Paul Watson wandered around the capital, Torshavn, it must have been pretty mind-boggling for these whalers to actually see him in person. By meeting him and his crew, I think that a lot of the Faroese realized that we’re not that much different from them. I hope that they also realized that we’re not anti-Faroese, we’re only anti-whaling.

I also thought of our campaign strategy as one where we would speak softly, but carry a big stick. In other words, as long as a hunt was not underway, then we could easily engage in discussion and debate about the issue of the pilot whale slaughter. However, the minute anybody showed an inkling of movement towards hunting, then we were ready to mobilize our two ships, our helicopter, our small boat, jet skis and even our lightweight aircraft (purchased specifically for this campaign and shown for the first time in “Whale Wars”) to intervene and shutdown any effort to hunt.

How would you like to see others getting involved to stop whaling?

I would love to see the Faroese who oppose the hunt, not to fear for their own personal safety if voicing opposition to the hunt. There is this idea that there is a dichotomy between us and them, between the Faroese and so-called outsiders who want the hunt to end. In reality, this separation is misleading because there is a growing group of Faroese people that are opposed to the pilot whale slaughter. Sadly, because the Faroe Islands are so small, opposing voices are quickly quashed and many are fearful of stating their true opinions.

Outside of the Faroe Islands, I would encourage people to support groups like Sea Shepherd, which are on the frontlines, year after year, defending and protecting whales and dolphins. Sea Shepherd is entirely dependent on donations from the public and we are very good at translating that money directly into whales saved.

Marlena White is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

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