Invasive Whale Study Fails—Again

For the second year in a row, researchers from the United States and Norway failed to measure a whale’s brain waves to determine how they might react to naval sonar and noise from oil and gas exploration. 

The experimental protocol calls for a net spanning nearly a mile between islands to herd migrating juvenile minke whales into an enclosure. After 24 hours, a captured whale would be forced into a small, modified aquaculture cage and pinned between two rafts. The researchers would then attempt “auditory evoked potential” testing, placing electrodes on the whale to measure brain waves for up to six hours to determine how the animal might react to active naval sonar, noise from the renewable energy sector, and seismic exploration conducted by the oil and gas industry. Blood samples would also be taken to test for stress markers.

During the month-long experiment in 2022, two minke whales were caught in the larger netted-off research area, but the research team was only able to corral one young male whale into the smaller aquaculture cage where the tests were to be performed. According to a report released in early July, the whale had to be set free following 12 hours of observation after exhibiting signs of stress—which leading scientists predicted would be the likely outcome—and the experiment was stopped. It is unclear whether the team followed the whale post-release to determine whether the animal has suffered any long-term effects due to the stress of the capture.

Last summer, the first phase of the project ended abruptly without testing a single whale after one minke got trapped for eight hours in the massive net before breaking free. Again, there was no report of any follow-up monitoring to make sure the whale had escaped unharmed.

With two failed research seasons and millions of dollars of US taxpayer money wasted, AWI has written to officials in both the United States and Norway to call for cancellation of this invasive and stressful research. We continue to maintain that the animal welfare and human safety risks associated with this study are unacceptable.