By Katie Kelley
At a recent sea life gala in Anchorage, Alaska, Jean Michel-Cousteau, the ocean conservationist and son of well-known ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau, reignited the issue of ocean pollutants causing cancer among beluga whales. The problem was first reported on in the 1980s when scientists discovered that the beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence rivers and runoffs in Canada were declining at an alarming rate due to what scientists speculated to be caused by pollution.
According to a 1988 article from The New York Times, “pollution from industrial activity along the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries, including the Great Lakes, is causing disease, premature death and a declining birth rate among the white beluga whales.”
Scientists had thoroughly investigated the beluga whale population in the St. Lawrence area, but today, the beluga whale population is at an all time low again and they still suffer from toxins and the onset of cancers. A New York Times national briefing reported in January that “the number of beluga whales in Cook Inlet is again declining.” According to the article, the beluga whales were put on the Endangered Species Act in 2009 because of the possibility of extinction, but that “the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report shows the numbers have slipped again to 321 animals, down from an estimated 375 in 2007 and 2008.”
Similar pollutions among other various ocean mammals have been discovered in recent years as well. In Norway, for example, whale meat was found to contain dangerously high levels of toxins. CNN reported that a “study by the International Whaling Commission determined levels of contamination among some marine mammals are so high that the animals would be classified as hazardous waste sites if they were on land.”
Science Daily also reported that orcas and killer whales around the world, especially in Canada, where a recent study was conducted, may face major health issues and endangerment over the next several years due to contamination with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
It is thought that toxins absorb into algae blooms, which then move through the food chain through phytoplankton and on to a copepod, which may eat an extremely high population of polluted phytoplankton. Algae blooms themselves are, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “vitally important to marine and fresh-water ecosystems and most species of algae are not harmful.” However, when algal blooms become harmful algal blooms (HABs) they can “negatively impact organisms in a variety of ways that can range from cell and tissue damage to organism death,” according to a study from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.
The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has found that “over 80 percent of marine pollution comes from land-based activities.” Although it has been illegally banned by the London Dumping Convention in 1972 to dispose of toxic materials, the issue still remains that sewage, trash and
toxins have already been distributed into ocean waters around the world. The WWF also reported that the London Dumping Convention does not ban chemical runoff from various “land-based activities. Chemicals can escape into water, soil, and air during their manufacture, use, or disposal as well as from accidental leaks or fires in products containing these chemicals.”
Scientists have speculated that due to chemical and other pollution runoffs, there is a list of at least ten ocean mammals that are at an increasing risk for developing pollution-related illnesses including cancers. The list includes the following:
- Sea Lions
- Polar Bears
- Bottlenose dolphins
- Beluga Whales
- Risso’s dolphins
- Harbor Seals
- Common dolphins
- Gray Seal
- Mediterranean monk seals
While there are several grassroots organizations working on a small scale to reduce the number of pollutants in the ocean, the issue remains that a large-scale movement must be initiated. Some, including Cousteau, are attempting to bring attention to the issue in hopes that by highlighting the problem, a solution can be found. “The message is the fact that we are using the ocean as a garbage can by dumping things we don’t see — such as chemicals and heavy metals — into the environment,” reported Cousteau in a recent Q&A with Time magazine.