Noise experiment with minke whales near Lofoten begins | Polarjournal
Minke whales grow up to twelve meters long, weigh up to ten tons and live up to 50 years. They prefer to feed on small crustaceans, but also eat smaller fish. Therefore, they are not popular in Norway and are heavily hunted. Picture: Ursula Tscherter ORES

For years, Japan has come under international criticism for their “scientific” whaling program. This involves killing hundreds of minke whales each year in Antarctica, taking some samples and offering the meat for sale in Japan. European nations are also among the critics of the whaling policy. But directly in front of the own European front door, in Norway, minke whales are also hunted, but so far without scientific background. But: Some time ago the Norwegian government gave the green light for an internationally controversial experiment with young minke whales, which has now officially started.

In 2019, the responsible food safety authority (Mattilsynet) granted approval for a project to conduct experiments on wild minke whales. The tests were supposed to take place last year, but had to be postponed because of Covid-19. As part of these experiments, minke whales will be captured off the Lofoten island of Vestvågøy between May and June by a team of Norwegian-American researchers to study how their brains react to underwater noise. The project is financially supported by the US Navy, the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and the gas and oil industry. It primarily concerns noise emanating from sonar and seismic surveys. Sonar (Sound and Navigation Ranging) is used by both military and fishing boats. By sending sound into the water and evaluating the returning echo, submarines as well as large fish can be detected. The frequency and the strength of the sound waves vary depending on the depth, the underground and the target object. For seismic surveys, sound pulses with a low frequency are generated by a sound cannon. A portion of these sound waves are sent back through the earth’s surface, providing the oil industry with a detailed 3D representation of the ocean floor as it searches for the last oil and gas reserves.

The experiment is to be carried out off the southern coast of Lofoten. Young minke whales are to be herded with nets (red lines) into an area between the islands. There they will be herded into a pool (grey) where they will then be held in a converted salmon cage (blue) for testing. The condition of the animals and their fitness should be evaluated beforehand. Then they are exposed to noise and the measurements are taken. Map: Google Earth / FFI

In concrete terms, one has to imagine that attempts are being made to herd migrating young minke whales with a kilometre-long net into an enclosure that is 280 metres long, 170 metres wide and 27 metres deep, in order to then hold them in small cages for measurements. There, the researchers want to measure the brain waves of the captured whales to determine how they react to noise sources from oil and gas production activities. The research team has a budget of US$ 1.8 million for 4 years. Officially, the goal of the project was somewhat vaguely defined as “to map the hearing of baleen whales”. The customer is The Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology (SOST) is listed in the USA. When searching the internet for SOST you get to the Obamawhitehouse.archives website, where you are told that the address is “frozen in time” and will no longer be updated. An inquiry by mail to the office indicated as contact was not answered. The food safety authority Mattilsynet, which is responsible for the project, had published a statement about the project on its website (PolarJournal reported about it three weeks ago).

Minke whales in the North Atlantic are also very keen on schools of fish. That is why they are on the hit list of Norwegian fishermen, who also call them “rats of the seas”. However, environmental organisations and whale experts consider the impact of minke whales on the declining catch figures to be of little consequence. Picture: Ursula Tscherter ORES

Minke whales have a hard time in Norway and are sometimes pejoratively referred to as rats of the sea. But of course – contrary to the whalers’ claims – they are not responsible for the decline in global fish stocks. Minke whales are usually curious and approach the boats with interest, which they do for example. in Iceland makes it a favorite for whale watching. In Norway they are still hunted commercially and as the smallest of the baleen whales they are not considered particularly attractive to tourists. Because, the bigger a whale, the more the hearts of tourists fly to it. It can therefore be assumed that these two reasons were decisive for carrying out the research project in the Norwegian Lofoten Islands, of all places.

The project also benefits from the fact that in early summer the young minke whales like to use these waters for their migration to the Barents Sea, where they find an abundant food supply. Today, we do know that the noise from sonar and seismic surveys harms baleen whales. They leave the area, stop feeding, and change the way they communicate. To better protect baleen whales from the above-mentioned noise sources in the future, we need to better understand what baleen whales hear and how they communicate. For this – so the goal of the planned experiment – meaningful research results are necessary.

Minke whales are fast and very agile animals that know how to defend themselves against attacks from predators such as orcas. But as a rule, they seek their salvation in flight. Picture: Ursula Tscherter ORES

According to the Food Safety Authority, this experimental procedure should have a maximum exposure of six hours, which is “moderate” for the whales. Whatever moderate means in this context. The Food Safety Authority also admits that ” This is a very new research project…. Audiograms have never been recorded on baleen whales before and, nor has anyone successfully captured a baleen whale before. ” At the same time, it sounds sarcastic when Petter Kvadsheim of the Norwegian Defence Research Institute (FFI), who is in charge of the project, says the following about the project: “This is a high-risk project… for us, not for the whales!” What he is referring to is the fact that minke whales are quite defensible animals, and it is impossible to estimate how they will behave when someone tries to catch them. The FFI focuses in particular on developments in science and military technology that have a direct impact on Norwegian political security and defence planning. Together with Dorian Houser from the National Marina Mammal Foundation (NMMF), Petter Kvadsheim is leading the series of experiments on the minke whales. The NMMF, in turn, writes on its website, “The National Marine Mammal Foundation’s mission is to improve and protect the lives of marine mammals, people, and our shared oceans through science, service, and education.” However, the extent to which this laudable mission is compatible with the proposed research project is being strongly questioned by many conservation organizations. Furthermore, with such a large involvement of American partners, the question arises as to why these tests are not being conducted in American waters? The answer is as simple as it is shocking: because it would not be allowed!

Minke whale populations have soared due to the lack of hunting during the whaling era. It is argued by whaling advocates that this allows the hunt to be sustainable. Conservation organizations, on the other hand, argue that hunting is antiquated and unnecessary for both industrial and food production. Picture: Michael Wenger

There is, of course, nothing wrong with research, i.e. systematically gaining scientific knowledge with a specific aim. Also or especially in the field of marine mammals. Especially if it helps to sustainably protect these fascinating animals in the future. However, it is important that the generally valid guidelines of research are taken into account. Scientific integrity is the basis for trustworthy science and includes, among other things, the obligation to deal ethically with the experimental participants – in this case the whales. The generally accepted ethical standards also define that results are not falsified and/or withheld. This ensures that research data can be reviewed and used by third parties. Any kind of research, especially animal experiments should be ethically reflected and justified. In other words, the researchers involved are obliged to carefully weigh up whether the expected benefit for humans is more important than the expected burden for the animal. Regardless, the stress on the animal must be limited to the maximum. If these two factors are present, then the animal experiment can be considered ethically justifiable.

As a further standard, it must be disclosed who the client and funders of research projects are, otherwise the integrity of the researchers and the credibility of the results of their research will suffer. In this specific case, in addition to the NMMF and FFI, the US Navy Marine Mammal Program, the University of Aarhus (Denmark), and LK Arts Norway, among others, are involved in the project.

Experiments on baleen whales have hardly ever been carried out, as the animals are difficult to capture and can hardly be kept according to current guidelines. Norway’s attempt has accordingly led to a major outcry from conservation organisations. Picture: Ursula Tscherter ORES

Norwegian and international animal welfare organisations are not very enthusiastic about these invasive test series. WDC (Whale & Dolphin Conservation), the Animal Welfare Institute and the Norwegian organization NOAH ask their members to call on Norway not to carry out the planned experiments. Dr. Siri Martinsen, a veterinarian with NOAH points out that “the circumstances of the experiment cause tremendous stress to the animals and may even affect their health.” The proposal to sedate the whales or anesthetize them in “emergencies” is met with no sympathy. Vanesa Tossenberger, Policy Director at WDC, warns, “Little is known about sedation or stunning of wild whales. But the limited data available suggests that sedation of baleen whales in the wild could be life-threatening.” That being said, the extent to which results from animals stressed in this way do not skew the results or translate to other cetacean species must be questioned.

In addition, the experiment will also have consequences for other animals, as they get tangled in the nets used to cordon off the research area and drown. The WDC strongly believes “that the welfare of the whales is more important than the research benefits in this case. Therefore, harming a few whales is not justified, even if something useful for the species as a whole were to be learned. Which we highly doubt!”

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