An ill-conceived and so far ill-fated joint US/ Norwegian experiment to test minke whales' reaction to noise (which I wrote about in May) has concluded its second season. Halfway through a four-year permit period, the project once again has nothing positive to show in research terms - although, sadly, there's a stressed young whale as collateral damage.
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Too stressed to test
In May, the research team headed by Petter Kvadsheim of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) proudly boasted that they'd just set 'the world's largest animal trap'. A young minke whale found his way into this 'trap' - a two-kilometre-long net strung across the strait at Stamsund, Lofoten, northern Norway. He was then herded into the 'testing zone' - in reality, a modified salmon cage. However, as we predicted, this whale became so stressed that he had to be released before they could test his hearing via electrodes implanted in his skin, the whole point of their venture.
A Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) image taken at the scene and featured in this article shows this little whale pitifully confined inside a net, pinioned tightly between the side of the salmon cage and a row of yellow buoys attached to a wooden raft. He is completely trapped in this 'hammock'. I can see three men on the raft attempting to fit sensors to his body, presumably to monitor his heartbeat, plus there's at least another seven men leaning over the side of the cage, and just behind them, a small boat with several people onboard. That's at least a dozen men, many within inches of the whale - no wonder he became stressed!
The one that got away
We've been working with colleagues at NOAH, Norway's largest animal welfare organisation, and the US-based Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) to halt these tests ever since we got wind of them in spring 2021. Their first season ended in near disaster as the only whale who entered the nets managed to escape to an uncertain fate. We still don't know how that young whale is doing and whether he or she survived their ordeal.
This year, whilst 20 minkes migrated past the entrance to the nets, only two went in - the unfortunate whale I describe above, plus a second whale, who entered the outer enclosure but fortunately refused point blank to be herded into the smaller 'test pool'.
We’re worried about the welfare implications for any young minke whales in the vicinity of the nets. We fear that the stress of capture and forcible testing could severely harm individual whales and even kill them - a condition known as ‘capture myopathy’.
We rallied global support
Thank you to everyone who joined us in opposing the cruel whale experiments in Norway. Almost 100,000 of you signed our petition and this was delivered via video to the office of the Norwegian prime minister by petition starter and WDC supporter, Vicky Moens. Dozens of whale scientists and veterinarians share your concern and more than 60 of them signed on to our formal protest to the Norwegian government. Add to that the 6,668 emails and around 700 tweets you sent to Norway’s prime minister and you can be sure that our voices were heard.
Together we have ensured that these cruel experiments didn’t just slip unnoticed under the radar but drew global attention to them. If we hadn’t subjected the researchers to such scrutiny, the outcome this season could have been even worse. You can still make your voice heard by emailing or tweeting Norway's prime minister.
They knew it was stressful
The lead researchers have already acknowledged that stress could be an issue. In a video posted to the FFI’s website before the season began, US lead, Dr. Dorian Hauser, admitted that 'anyone who has worked with wild animals knows that when they are handled by humans, they will be stressed'.
Our formal complaint asked a series of probing questions, including how they proposed to measure stress and at what point in the process? We have yet to receive a reply.
Interestingly in one recent article, Kvadsheim says: 'We will make changes to the procedures to avoid the animal being stressed. In short, we want to take [more] time, so that the whale has time to get used to the situation.' Yet, we've learned that he applied in May to shorten the minimum period required to keep the whales under observation in the larger netted area - to ensure they were comfortable before moving them to the salmon cage - from 12 to only 2 hours.
Not a laughing matter
In the same article, he recounts an incident at the start of their test period when several whales swam close to the 'gate' to the netted area but turned abruptly away. It turns out that adjustments made to the gate caused scraping noises. ‘”In our attempt to improve the capture facility, it turned out that we made a temporary acoustic scare device ... even though we have not been able to measure what the baleen whale perceives, we at least have clear indications that they perceive the sound of metal against metal. And they do not like it!” says Kvadsheim and laughs.’
We'll fight this all the way
Further proof, if proof were needed, that this project is wrong on every level and should be cancelled before further whales are subjected to unnecessary stress. The tests will begin again next summer and we will keep up the pressure.
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 wanted to protect whales and dolphins, they would invest in efforts to limit noise pollution in the ocean. Full stop.
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