Whales of Norway need protection!


We have started a cooperation with the WDC and they have posted a blog of my work and challenges:

“I started my research in Norway 13 years ago as a naïve field biologist who wanted to study the natural behaviour of whales. In other words, I wanted to get a boat and go out to  sea, find the whales and study who they are, what they do and most of all, how they communicate. Back in 2003, I studied orcas at Tysfjord in northern Norway, assisting other scientists and whale watching companies. With few boats around at the time, we often found the whales feeding alone in a beautiful fjord, which was a perfect location to study their natural behaviour! But quickly word went around and existing whale watching businesses expanded, new ones started up and it became more difficult to find the whales without them being surrounded by boats.

Then in 2007, the whales disappeared from the Tysfjord following a change in herring migration and they are currently concentrated during the winter months in the fjords between Andøya and Tromsø. Sadly, in what looks like a re-run of the situation at Tysfjord, the number of boats has exploded in recent years. In the absence of government regulations or permits, numerous film crews and photographers from all over the world now crowd the fjords, together with fishermen, whale watching companies, private boats and researchers. This winter, the number of boats concentrated in this area might exceed one hundred.

The situation is no better at Lofoten, where I’ve been studying whales during the summer months since 2007.  Orcas feeding in the area have been particularly disturbed, since they venture close to land during the summer months but are constantly approached  by boats.

This year, I could only witness boat noise and the sad spectacle of orcas trying to get away from the boats.  As quickly as  one boat left, another one would replace it. The whales were obviously annoyed and tried to escape the vessels by  changing their course or diving for a long time. Not only were there fewer sightings of orca groups, but boat noise and the whales’ avoidance behaviour meant that I could not study their natural behaviour or communication.

 

In the absence of official regulations, our response has been to reach out and educate vessel users. We drafted the above guidelines asking people to slow down and  also encourage people to watch the whales from land. This is really easy to do from Lofoten and is a particularly gentle and non-intrusive way to watch orcas since they come so close to the shore and can sometimes be seen for hours!

Orcas close to land, Loftoten, Norway Summer 2016

I am also really pleased that our guidelines were used as a basis for the development of more detailed guidelines for Northern Norway. Whilst our aim will be to achieve formal regulations, we hope that these guidelines can provide a good example of best practice for vessel users in the meantime.

Minke whales desperately avoiding the whalers

Whalers in the Vestfjord, northern Norway 2016

When I started Ocean Sounds in 2005 in Henningsvaer, I was fully aware that my presence would add to   controversy on the whaling issue. However, things started well enough and I managed to develop a personal communication with ex-whalers, but the situation became increasingly hostile once the current whalers opened a whale meat processing in Henningsvaer. Norway flouts international law banning commercial whaling and instead, allows minke whales to be hunted in its territorial waters. This year, there weren’t many minke whales in the Vestfjord, yet the area was crowded with whaling vessels searching in vain for whales and many whalers had to go as far as Svalbard in order to meet their quotas.

‘Acoustic wall’ scares off the whales

Seismic surveys conducted along the coast of northern Norway Summer 2016 Felipe Matos Ocean Sounds

The Norwegian Petroleum Department is conducting seismic surveys for oil and gas along the Norwegian coast. They claim to follow Norwegian rules, but don’t explicitly mention marine mammals and any necessary precautions. Further, they are not required to have trained observers on board and even if they encounter marine mammals, they are not required to pause their operations. Again, Norway is exempting itself from international laws and instead, creating its own.

I could detect the sounds of seismic surveys inside the Vestfjord sporadically since 2012 but this year, continuous surveys have been conducted closer to the protected Lofoten islands than in previous years, blocking the entrance to the Vestfjord with an “acoustic wall”. Instead of whale songs, seismic blasts every 8 seconds have been the dominant sound source in the Vestfjord! There has been a significant decline in whale abundance and we suspect that the whales are actively avoiding the area.  

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Read the whole blog on the WDC website!

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