A US-funded study of whales’ hearing has been halted after researchers struggled to find cooperative ‘subjects’ for their tests. The controversial research ended without furnishing any results.
With backing from the US government, an international team of researchers in Norway sought to measure what whales hear, and how sensitive they are to sound. The experiment was billed as a way to learn how human-generated noise, ranging from naval maneuvers to offshore drilling, might affect the marine mammals’ natural habitats.
Scientists hoped to trap several young minke whales and then move them to a modified fish farm in a remote village in northern Norway. The animals would then be placed in a hammock-like net, where they would undergo up to six hours of hearing analysis. The whales would remain in captivity for no longer than four days, and would be tagged before being released.
But things didn’t go quite according to plan. The researchers managed to catch three whales, but two of them were deemed too large for the test equipment, while the third found a hole in the enclosure and escaped. After just three weeks, the $1.8 million research project – which received funding from the US Navy, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, NOAA Fisheries, and the Marine Mammal Commission – has been put on ice.
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Although the experiment ended without producing the intended results, the researchers insist that the short-lived study was not a failure.
“We have not quite reached the finish line. That was not the goal of this year’s project either. The plan is to continue until next year. We have come a long way and learned a lot,” chief researcher Petter Kvadsheim, from Norway’s Armed Forces Research Institute, told Norweigan national broadcaster NRK.
Astrid Fuchs, a representative from Whale & Dolphin Conservation, an animal welfare group, said that she hoped the experiment would be permanently scrapped, and that the difficulties encountered by the researchers were to be expected.
“That one [whale] escaped is further proof of the poor setup in these experiments. Hopefully it did not hurt itself,” Fuchs said.
The experiment had faced international criticism, with a petition urging the Norweigan government to stop the tests, garnering more than 60,000 signatures. Opponents of the research said it would subject the marine mammals to inhumane treatment. The team of researchers maintained that a better understanding of whales’ hearing could help shape policies to better protect them from potentially harmful human activities.
Notably, a previous attempt to capture baleen whales for hearing experiments in Iceland resulted in failure, after the whales managed to escape.
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