‘We thought it was a joke’: International opposition to Norwegian whale testing project

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Norwegian and American researchers are working to capture young minke whales in northern Norway.

The waters near Lofoten are the site of a large, multi-year, first-of-its-kind acoustic testing project.

“We will work until the end of June, trying to catch whales to measure their hearing threshold,” said Petter Kvadsheim with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

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Global News reached Kvadsheim by telephone for an interview about the project, but because of a poor connection the researcher provided a few comments about the project by email.

Kvadsheim and another researcher involved with the auditory experiments, Dorian Houser, say to determine if man-made noise is negatively effecting the whales, they must first determine exactly what sounds the whales can hear and their frequencies.

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The capture and testing methods, however, have attracted the attention of scientists and veterinarians around the globe.

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“The whales are going to be chased and herded into this fenced-off area. Then they will be kept for hours within a salmon cage, basically put between two rafts. Electrodes will be put under the skin to monitor their reaction to loud noises,” said Astrid Fuchs, policy lead for the German office of Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

The group launched a petition to try to raise awareness about the project and collected signatures from more than 50 experts, calling on the Norwegian government to put an end to the research.

“When we first heard about this couple of months ago, we thought it was a joke, to be honest, because it’s a very, very unusual setup, to put it mildly,” Fuchs told Global News.

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There are many peer-reviewed scientific papers documenting the harmful effects of man-made noises such as those caused by navy sonar testing on whales and other marine wildlife.

“I’ve been studying whales since 1982. I just find the solution will not be in the biology, the solution will be in the engineering, you know, quiet technology, just like we did with aeroplanes,” said Lindy Weilgart, adjunct research associate at Dalhousie University and ocean policy consultant for OceanCare.

Weilgart is one the Canadians who signed the ‘statement of concern’ from the scientific community.

“I mean, really, we know noise is a problem. We know it even affects ecosystem services,” Weilgart said.

“How about we decrease the noise? How about that?”

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Global National: Jun 13 – Jun 13, 2021

Those involved with the research said they were aware of the letter from “animal rights activists and so-called scientists.”

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Kvadsheim added, “Many more established researchers in the science community is supportive of the research and think that it is an important project, including the agencies regulating ocean noise.”

The project has multiple funding partners including the National Marine Mammal Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy.

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According to numbers provided to Global News by the U.S. Navy, it is contributing USD$186,000 to the project for the base year, with an option to commit USD$586,000 for fiscal years 2023-2025.

The researchers are looking to capture and test 12 juvenile minke whales.

“Basically, the question is do they actually want to protect whales and dolphins, which they claim? But as I said before, there is a lot of research on how negatively such noise affects the animals. So we know that already,” said Fuchs.

The president of the Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society, Roy Mulder, fears the research will end badly for the whales.

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“This is this is the first time that this has ever been done. They’ve never done a capture of a large whale to do acoustic testing on. And the stress levels on these particular minke whales and their disposition of minke whales doesn’t lend itself to this sort of study. They’re largely fairly skittish creatures,” said Mulder.

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Mulder, Fuchs and Weilgart all categorized this research as a step backwards, saying much of the research that happens today is observed in whales in the wild, unlike this project, which involves the whales being herded, captured and restricted during testing.

“This is an experiment and it just disturbs me that they have to do it this way. There’s got to be a better way,” said Mulder.

Access to the testing site has been restricted.

Norwegian government officials tell Global News access will be granted to media at some point in the future, but that those involved are concerned too many people around in boats would cause stress for the whales.

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