The first season of a Norwegian, American and Danish research project to test the hearing of whales has ended without any results. Not a single whale ventured into what amounted to controversial traps set up at sea just off Lofoten, but the researchers involved insist the project was successful.
“Our main goal was to demonstrate that the system of capturing and then releasing whales functions,” Petter Kvadsheim of Norway’s Forsvarets forsknings-institutt (FFI), also known as the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, stated on FFI’s own website Monday. “We have succeeded at that.”
FFI still has plans to chart hearing levels of minke whales over the next four years in cooperation with the University of Århus in Denmark and The National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF). FFI claims testing methods are the same as those used to test the hearing of newborn babies. The whales will then be released from their confinement within 1.7 kilometers of netting that stretches across an expanse of the Vestfjord near the port of Stamsund in Lofoten. The nets were designed to “guide” the whales into an enclosure where the hearing tests would be performed.
The researchers say the hearing tests among whales are important in order to limit any damage from noise created by human activity in the seas. That noise could come, for example, from offshore oil- and wind energy installations, seismic methods used for oil exploration, sonar or military operations. Norway’s government ministry in charge of climate and the environment has been evaluating how such noise or potential noise should be regulated to protect sea life.
The project has sparked strong opposition, however, from animal rights organizations. They’ve branded the project as “risky, reckless and dangerous” because capturing the whales in what they’ve called “a small, modified aquaculture cage” can keep them in confinement for as many as four days of testing. That, claims the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), can cause great stress for the marine mammals and potentially affect their health, behaviour, immune function, reproduction and even their survival.
Several groups including AWI, the Norwegian animal rights organization NOAH and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) urged Norway’s food safety authority Mattilsynet earlier this year to revoke its approval of the whales’ hearing tests. They called it an “experiment” that posed risks to animal welfare and human safety.
It’s been funded mostly by the US government, leading AWI to also send its objection to US fisheries and naval research officials. They’ve expressed concern that Norway, which still controversially allows commercial whaling, was chosen as the location for the research in a “deliberate attempt” to get around the US’ own Marine Mammal Protection Act and other environmental laws. They contend such experiments on whales would not have been allowed in US waters.
Opponents of the project also suggest that whale hearing test results could ultimately be used by the defense and offshore energy industries “to justify increased levels of ocean noise.” Documents obtained through the US’ Freedom of Information Act reveal that some of the agencies involved in the project think regulators could potentially overestimate the harm caused to low-frequency hearing whales.
“We are incredibly disappointed that respected US scientists are involved in these risky and unnecessary experiments on live whales,” said Susan Millward, director of AWI’s marine program. She said it was “alarming” that the US government is spending as much as USD 3.7 million co-funding the project along with two others that are related. She called the Lofoten project “a misguided effort,” especially since previous studies have already provided information on the accoustic responses of baleen whales.
AWI said Norwegian state oil company Equinor has also contributed funds for the tagging used on the whales, according to documents obtained by AWI from the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. Equinor has long had offshore oil and gas operations and now is investing heavily in offshore wind energy.
Whales may panic
Siri Martinsen, a veterinarian who leads the animal rights group NOAH in Norway, added that since Norway “still engages in commercial whaling of minke whales, it’s clear that the (Norwegian) government has little regard for the lives of these beings.” She found it nonetheless “surprising” that basic animal welfare concerns “are disregarded and the authorities seem to put all their trust in the evaluations of extractive industries (those earning money by exploiting marine resources like seafood and offshore energy) and military interests.”
She claimed there is “a significant risk” that captured whales “will panic once they are trapped, causing them to thrash or flail about, which could lead to serious injuries to both the whales and the researchers.” More than 70,000 “concerned citizens” have reportedly contacted Norwegian authorities and urged them to cancel the project.
The researchers involved in the project insist the testing is being pursued to protect whales, not harm them. “This will be the first time we get information … necessary to understand how noise at sea can affect these animals,” claimed Dorian Houser of the US’ National Marine Mammal Foundation.
The researchers reported that 20 whales were observed during their four weeks of field research at the site. Three whales entered the area before the capturing system was in place. Another three swam into the area when it was in place, but one was released because it was too large, another “managed to escape under the nets before researchers managed to test it” and the third whale wasn’t a minke so the researchers “let it swim on.”
That’s why no actual hearing tests were performed, “but the researchers are coming back in 2022,” FFI reported on Monday. “We’re looking forward to next year, when we can use the entire testing period to capture whales and test their hearing,” said researcher Petter H Kvadsheim. FFI confirmed that funding for the project has come from the US Navy and “US oil and energy authorities.”