Washington, DC—A risky and reckless experiment that aimed to capture whales in Norway and test how they would respond to ocean noise ended on June 30 with no measurable results—apart from causing unnecessary stress to a juvenile minke whale.
As was the case last summer, researchers from the United States and Norway failed to measure the whales’ brain waves to determine how they might react to naval sonar and noise from oil and gas exploration. The plans called for the capture of up to 12 juvenile minke whales—who could be held for as long as four days—off Vestvågøy in the Lofoten area of northern Norway.
The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI); NOAH, Norway’s largest NGO for animals; and WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation have repeatedly urged the Norwegian government to revoke its approval of the study and rallied tens of thousands of people to send letters of opposition. The three groups, along with dozens of global whale experts, warned that the experiment would likely cause the whales stress, potentially impacting their overall health.
“It is quite clear that this experiment poses large animal welfare risks, and that there is no way to be able to control the situation should a whale be injured or panic, said Dr. Siri Martinsen, a veterinarian with NOAH. “At the same time as Norway is allowing this controversial experiment, the country is also conducting the biggest killing of minke whales in the world during its annual whale hunt; 917 whales risk being killed.”
The experimental protocol calls for a net spanning nearly a mile to herd migrating juvenile minke whales into an enclosure. After 24 hours, each captured whale would be forced to move into a small, modified aquaculture cage and then pinned between two rafts. The researchers would then attempt “auditory evoked potential” testing, placing electrodes on the animal to measure brain waves for up to six hours to determine how the animal might react to active naval sonar and 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.
The research, funded by Norway’s Defense Research Establishment, the US Navy and other US government agencies, and the energy sector, is scheduled to conclude in 2024. According to documents obtained by AWI through the Freedom of Information Act, the US government is spending $3.7 million to co-fund this experiment and two related projects. Energy giant Equinor (formerly Statoil) contributed an additional $60,000 toward the study’s tagging devices.
AWI wrote to US officials at NOAA Fisheries and the Navy’s Office of Naval Research, expressing concern that Norway was chosen as the location for this research in a deliberate attempt to circumvent application of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other US environmental laws. US law requires that—in US waters or actions by US citizens on the open seas—the military and the oil and gas industries estimate the acoustic impacts of seismic activities and naval sonar on marine mammals, and obtain and follow the terms of relevant permits and authorizations for their activities.
“This experiment was a disaster from the start, and it’s past time for the governments of Norway and the United States to abandon ship,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant at AWI. “These invasive methods are misguided and unwarranted, especially because data collected from similar studies has failed to translate into practical conservation and management measures. It is entirely possible that the results of this flawed study will simply be used in an attempt to justify increased levels of ocean noise by the defense and marine energy industries.”
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 escaping (with no reported follow-up on the animal’s condition). Several larger minke whales were deemed unsuitable for the research and a humpback whale also swam into the cordoned-off section.
During the month-long experiment this summer, two whales were caught in the cordoned-off research area, but the researchers stated that they were able to get only one whale into the modified aquaculture cage where the tests were to be performed. According to a report released last week, however, the researchers chose to release the young male after observing him for 12 hours because he was exhibiting signs of stress and then stopped the experiment. It is unclear whether the research team followed the whale post-release to determine whether the animal is suffering long-term effects due to the stress of the capture.
Petter Kvadsheim of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) expressed “surprise” in the report that the whale was suddenly stressed, despite numerous warnings from AWI, other animal protection groups, and independent researchers that this would be a likely outcome.
Although the study has been plagued with problems, the researchers plan to try again next year. AWI, NOAH and WDC will continue to monitor developments and push Mattilsynet to rescind its approval.
Vanessa Williams‑Grey, whaling campaign coordinator at WDC, commented: "This is bad science. It is inexcusable to trap and terrify young minke whales when we already know how whales respond to noise from oil and gas exploration and military sonar—they respond badly! If the funders of these multimillion-dollar projects genuinely want to protect whales and dolphins, they would invest in efforts to limit noise pollution in the ocean. Period.”
The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.
NOAH, Norway’s largest animal rights organization, was founded in 1989 and is based on the principle that all animals deserve freedom and respect. NOAH is working against animal exploitation in the farming industry, entertainment industry, in laboratory research, and more by spreading information to the public, arranging protests, lobbying, and campaigning. The organization is also dedicated to protection and conservation of wild animals.
WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is the leading global charity dedicated to the conservation and protection of whales and dolphins. We defend these remarkable creatures against the many threats they face through campaigns, lobbying, advising governments, conservation projects, field research, and rescue.