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Killer diets: orcas off Canada’s East Coast threatened by ‘forever chemicals’ in their food

Killer whales off Canada's East Coast and in the eastern Arctic are particularly at risk of consuming population-threatening contaminants
This article was originally published on The Conversation Canada.

Killer whales, also called orcas, are known for their intelligence and striking presence. They are also enduring a silent but persistent threat beneath the surface of our oceans.

My research investigates killer whales and their diets in the North Atlantic. Previous studies have focused on killer whales in the Pacific Ocean. But until now, no data existed for our killer whales in the North Atlantic, including those in Eastern Canada and the Canadian Arctic.

With other international researchers, I recently published a study in Environmental Science & Technology that reveals a troubling reality: these apex predators are carrying high levels of persistent organic pollutants in their blubber. The accumulation of these synthetic contaminants is also creating health risks for the killer whales.

Chemicals more concentrated higher up the food chain

Persistent organic pollutants are also known as “forever chemicals” due to their remarkable stability and long-lasting nature. This group includes well-known compounds like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chlorinated pesticides like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and brominated flame retardants.

In the last century, these chemicals were mass produced and used in a wide range of applications, such as industrial processes or agriculture. But research conducted in Sweden in the late 1960s revealed that these chemicals accumulate in living organisms and persist in the environment.

Dorsal fins of four killer whales breach the surface of the ocean
Killer whales are apex predators, meaning they’re at the top of the food chain. This also means they’re at an increased risk of exposure to chemicals consumed by everything below them in that chain. Photo: NOAA / Unsplash

The chemicals bind to fats and increase in concentration as they move up the food web, impacting dolphins and whales the most. These animals, being top predators, accumulate the largest concentrations and struggle to eliminate these chemicals. This buildup of contaminants through their diets — known as biomagnification — is especially concerning for marine mammals, as they need ample fat for warmth and energy.

At high concentrations, these chemicals disrupt the mammals’ immune and hormonal systems but also affect their ability to reproduce, and can even lead to cancer.

Killer whales in Canadian Arctic and Atlantic have highest PCB levels in study

Our study, focusing on 160 killer whales, reveals a concerning pattern of PCB contamination across the North Atlantic. The concentrations vary significantly across the North Atlantic, ranging from a staggering 100 milligrams per kilogram in the Western North Atlantic, to around 50 milligrams per kilogram in the mid-North Atlantic. Intriguingly, killer whales in the Eastern North Atlantic carry lower PCB levels at roughly 10 milligrams per kilogram in Norway.

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For context, PCB-related immune effects start at 10 milligrams per kilogram, while reproductive failure was observed at 41 milligrams per kilogram in marine mammals. Killer whales in Eastern Canada and the Canadian Arctic have PCB levels exceeding twice the threshold linked to reproductive problems in marine mammals.

Orcas that eat seals and other whales show highest levels of contaminants

Diet plays a pivotal role in this pattern of contamination. Killer whales that primarily feed on fish tend to have lower contaminant levels. On the other hand, those with diets focused on marine mammals, particularly seals and toothed whales, show higher levels of contaminants.

Killer whales with mixed diets — containing both fish and marine mammals — tend to display elevated contaminant levels, particularly in Iceland.

Our research investigates the potential impact of diet preferences on killer whale health. Risk assessments suggest that killer whales in the Western North Atlantic, and specific areas of the Eastern North Atlantic where they have mixed diets, face higher risks, directly linked to what they eat.

Among the emerging contaminants, hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD), a flame retardant, is of particular concern. Concentrations of HBCDD in North Atlantic killer whales are among the highest measured in any marine mammals, surpassing levels found in their North Pacific counterparts.

Disappearing sea ice sees killer whale range and diet shift

This reveals the fascinating complexity of killer whale ecology and underscores how their dietary choices significantly impact their exposure to environmental pollutants.

It also raises some concern for “Arctic-invading” killer whales that progressively move north due to climate change. Killer whales’ large dorsal fin has traditionally prevented them from navigating dense sea ice. But the melting of sea ice has allowed killer whales to access a new habitat with new prey species.

There, researchers believe that they will hunt more and more marine mammals, like ringed seals, narwhals and belugas. These dietary shifts, influenced by our changing environment, may result in heightened health risks for apex predators.

Maternal transfer means females are less contaminated

The study also spotlights a sex difference in contaminant concentrations. Male killer whales appear to be more contaminated than their female counterparts, thanks to the transfer of contaminants from adult females to their offspring during gestation and lactation.

Killer whale mothers use their own energy to produce fatty milk for their calves, helping them grow quickly and stay healthy. This nutritious milk comes from the mother’s blubber, where contaminants are stored. As she feeds her young ones, she may pass on as much as 70 per cent of these stored contaminants.

A killer whale breaches the surface of the ocean in front of snowy mountains on the shoreline
The author suggests conservation measures should be focused in Eastern Canada and the eastern Arctic where killer whales are at higher risk of contamination. Photo: Felix Rottmann / Unsplash

Concrete action needed to protect North Atlantic killer whales

In response to these findings, urgent action is needed to protect North Atlantic killer whales and their ecosystems. The 2001 United Nations treaty’s objective to phase out and destroy PCBs by 2028 is slipping out of reach.

Substantial quantities of PCB-contaminated waste are stored in deteriorating warehouses, risking contaminants ending up in the environment, and further affecting our ecosystems. To compound the issue, as one chemical gets banned, another often emerges, with enough variations to avoid previous regulations, perpetuating a harmful cycle.

To effectively tackle the issue of contaminant accumulation in killer whales, the following actions are necessary:

  • Urgent steps are needed for the proper disposal of PCB-contaminated waste, with an emphasis on international collaboration to support nations lacking the infrastructure for waste management.
  • It is crucial to prevent the release of potentially more harmful contaminants into the environment by improving toxicity testing of chemicals before they enter the market.
  • Collaboration among ecotoxicologists, conservation biologists, policymakers and other stakeholders is essential. Effective strategies to mitigate pollution’s adverse effects can only be developed through collective efforts.
  • Targeted conservation efforts should be directed toward populations at higher risk, such as killer whales in the Eastern Canadian Arctic, and Eastern Canada.

Chemical pollution has been identified as one of the nine global threats to wildlife, as well as human health in modern times. It is time to give our planet — and killer whales — the relief they need by reducing existing contaminants through concrete actions.

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In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

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Like a kid in a candy store
When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on TC Energy’s Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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