U.S.-Funded Experiment To Test How Whales Respond To Navy Sonar & Seismic Exploration By The Oil & Gas Industry Kills Minke Whale In Norway

A controversial U.S.-backed research study that aimed to capture whales in northern Norway and test how they would respond to ocean noise has resulted in the death of a minke whale, the Norwegian Defense Research Institute announced this week.

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), in cooperation with NOAH, Norway’s largest NGO for animals; WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation); and other global whale experts, has repeatedly implored agencies in Norway and the United States to rescind research permits and funding for the project, given its potential to harm whales.

On June 3, the test site was reportedly damaged during the night by powerful winds and strong tidal currents. When the researchers went to inspect the damage, they discovered that a minke whale had gotten stuck under one of the barrier nets and drowned. As a result, the project is on hold.

“This experiment has been an accident waiting to happen from the start, and a gross misuse of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for AWI. “Placing a nearly mile-long net in an area known to be frequented by whales, and leaving it in place for weeks on end all but guaranteed that a whale would become entangled. Poor weather should be no excuse here; the possibility that winds and currents could have damaged the test site should have been taken into account during the permitting process.”

AWI has contended that Norway, a whaling nation, was likely chosen as the location for this study in an effort to circumvent safeguards under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act that might have prohibited such an invasive, dangerous, and questionable project.

The study involved blocking a passageway between islands with the net and herding individual migrating juvenile minke whales into an aquatic pen, trapping them inside. 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 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 multi-year study, funded by Norway’s Defense Research Establishment, the U.S. Navy, and other U.S. government agencies, as well as the energy sector, has been plagued with problems since it began in 2021. The first year, a minke whale was trapped in a net for eight hours before escaping, with no reported follow-up on the animal’s condition. One year later, a juvenile minke whale that was captured in an aquatic cage had to be released because the whale became extremely stressed and vomited.

Given that the researchers have failed for three years to obtain any data, subjected several whales to the stress of being herded into a large net enclosure, and now caused the death of a whale, AWI and its partners call on U.S. and Norwegian officials to immediately and permanently shut down this project.

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