U.S. & Norway Conduct Cruel Sonar & Noise Experiments For Oil & Gas Exploration Endangering Whales While Delivering No Results
A risky and reckless experiment in Norway to test how whales would respond to ocean noise ended on June 30th with no measurable results, except for causing unnecessary stress to juvenile minke whales.
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, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) 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,” Dr. Siri Martinsen, a veterinarian with NOAH, said in a statement. “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, as well as 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 U.S. Navy, and other U.S. 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 United States 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 U.S. 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 U.S. environmental laws. The law requires that, in U.S. waters or actions by U.S. 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 is past time for the governments of Norway and the United States to abandon ship,” stated 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 stop the experiment and release the young male after observing him for 12 hours after exhibiting signs of stress. 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.
“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 multi-million-dollar projects genuinely want to protect whales and dolphins, they would invest in efforts to limit noise pollution in the ocean. Period,” noted Vanessa Williams‑Grey, whaling campaign coordinator at WDC.
Although the study has been plagued with problems, the researchers plan to try again next year.
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