It’s hard to know whether to breathe a sigh of relief that this year’s risky hearing experiments on juvenile minke whales off northern Norway have ended without any whales being trapped and forcibly tested, or continue to seethe that these tests were even considered, let alone rubberstamped by the Norwegian government’s Food Standards Agency.
Last month, I outlined the plans of the joint US and Norwegian research team, headed by Dorian Houser of the US National Marine Mammal Foundation and Petter Kvadsheim of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, to capture young minkes in massive nets as they migrated through the Lofoten archipelago on their way to their summer feeding grounds in the Barents Sea. Once trapped, the whales were to be herded, one at a time, into a modified salmon cage, clamped between two rafts and electrodes implanted beneath their skin in order to measure their brainwaves in response to playback of ocean sounds. Fortunately, at that point, whilst the research team had spent weeks laying out around two kilometres of nets, the whales stayed clear of the danger zone.
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What happened next?
Very little, thankfully. On 16th June, the day after my blog was posted, a minke whale found his or her way into the outer enclosure. The researchers sealed the exit, but this little whale managed to escape that same night without trace. Subsequent press reports differ, with some stating that the whale escaped via a hole in the net, whilst others allege that he or she managed to swim under it. Either way, the researchers have no idea of that whale’s fate. Did this young whale survive or suffer any injury whilst struggling clear of the net? At the very least, he or she must surely have been frightened.
The researchers admit that two further whales entered the outer enclosure. The first was a minke whale, but this time, an older adult and so basically just too large to fit into the test cage and therefore released. The other whale was a humpback and so, in the words of the researchers, ‘allowed to swim on’! But surely the very fact that a whale of another species was able to swim into the netted enclosure in the first place is a major concern, demonstrating that these huge nets are indiscriminate and have the potential to trap or even entangle other marine life in the vicinity?
These waters are home to a glorious array of species including orcas, pilot whales, harbour porpoises, white-striped dolphins, seals, sea eagles and otters. Imagine their stress and panic if any of these amazing creatures became entangled in these nets?
The research team is well aware of the storm of opposition to these experiments from the public and from scientists and veterinarians - much of that generated by WDC and our friends at Animal Welfare Institute and NOAH, Norway’s leading animal rights organisation. Almost 100,000 of you have signed our petition and more than 50 of the world’s leading experts on whales and noise issues, as well as marine mammal vets, signed our open letter to the Norwegian government calling for these cruel experiments to be halted.
The researchers were predictably chippy, therefore, in defending their project, claiming that whilst it was ‘high risk’ and a ‘daring experiment’, this season was not a failure as they had learned valuable lessons about how best to capture whales in their nets. Petter Kvadsheim insisted ‘We have not quite reached the finish line. That was not the goal of this year's project. The plan is to continue until next year. We have come a long way and learned a lot.’ However, given their lack of tangible results - whilst great news of course for those whales spared the testing cage - questions must surely be asked by their funders.
Funds could be better spent on practical measures to reduce noise in our ocean
This ‘daring experiment’ not only risks the safety and welfare of any whales who have the misfortune to be trapped next year if the project is not halted, but it is also incredibly expensive! The US federal government has reportedly contributed $3.7 million to this project and its offshoots and a glance at the list of other funders, which includes the US Navy and Norwegian defence agency, as well as the oil and gas industry - noise producers one and all - tells its own story about their true intentions. Quite simply, these agencies want to know just how much noise they can pump into our ocean (in the course of deploying naval sonar or using seismic airguns to test for oil and gas) before baleen whales are harmed, so that they can carry out these lucrative activities with minimum disruption.
Surely this huge grant could have been better spent on practical solutions to reduce noise levels in our ocean due to human activities? After all, we already know a great deal about the way noise disturbs and harms whales and dolphins yet, disgracefully, data gathered to date from similar studies on dolphins and other toothed whale species has spectacularly failed to translate into solid management measures. Is there any real hope that this latest ‘research’ will actually benefit minkes and other baleen whale species, or does this just represent further kicking the can down the road?
And, given the world is still battling a pandemic, with multiple lockdowns and tight restrictions on travel in most regions, was it really such a good idea to fly a US team thousands of miles simply to lay out a massive net - for that is precisely what this season amounted to?
We need to stop them next year!
The researchers defiantly insist that they will be back next year and boast that they will be ready to hit the ground running and capture and forcibly test some whales - but you can be sure that we will be campaigning hard to ensure that doesn’t happen!
- We have written again to the Norwegian Food Safety Agency which issued the capture permit asking searching questions about this year’s experiments and in particular, whether they can confirm that the little minke who escaped was definitely unharmed (we know they can’t!).
- We will be making further representations to governments and official agencies in both Norway and the US, as well as seeking support from the UK and other whale-friendly governments.
- We will be inviting lead researcher Petter Kvadsheim to attend a video call with noise and welfare experts present to respond to our concerns.
- We are further investigating the whole issue of ‘offshoring’, whereby research that likely would not be permitted in home waters is carried out in regions with much weaker regulations, including around animal welfare, as is likely in this case.
How you can help
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