A controversial research project in Norway that tries to test the hearing of minke whales was suspended after a whale died, researchers announced on Wednesday. Activists and scientists have strongly criticized the experiments, labeling them “cruel and pointless.”
The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI) has been running the minke whale hearing project each summer since 2021 with support of the US National Marine Mammal Foundation.
As part of the research, minke whales are captured, kept in a fenced area in the Lofoten archipelago, and subjected to hearing tests. The goal of the project was to gather data to establish limitations on how much noise humans can produce in the ocean.
The project has faced criticism from animal rights activists and scientists who believe the experiment is dangerous. In 2021, 50 international scientists and veterinarians penned a letter to the Norwegian government to protest against the experiments.
Between June 2 and 3, FFI said bad weather damaged the project testing site, resulting in a minke whale becoming entangled in a broken fence line and dying from drowning.
“This experiment has been an accident waiting to happen from the start,” Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), told The Animal Reader in a mail, adding that last year a captured lone minke whale “had to be released because the whale became extremely stressed and vomited.”
“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,” O’Connell added.
According to AWI, these types of research projects on whales would have never been allowed in US waters because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, adding that choosing Norway was a way of bypassing the marine protection legislation.
“No whale should have to face being bundled into a cage and have electrodes implanted under his or her skin. These experiments should be halted permanently,” Danny Groves, a spokesperson for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, said.
AWI said that the researchers have failed to get any data in the past years, subjected several whales to the stress of being confined into a large net enclosure, and now caused the death of a whale. The organization called on the US and Norwegian governments “to immediately and permanently shut down this project.”
The experiment was due to run until the summer of 2024 but has been put on hold while the minke whale’s death is being assessed and the site repaired.
“Our team was devastated when they realized a minke whale died in a barrier line damaged by the severe weather prior to the official start of this year’s hearing test project,” Petter Kvadsheim, chief researcher at FFI, said in a statement. He told news agency AFP that he hoped the project could resume “in the next few days.”