Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Friday, June 25, 2010 8:44 pm

Whale fail

Filed under: We're so screwed — Lex @ 8:44 pm
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You don’t have to get all sappy and sentimental about marine mammals to be worried about this:

Sperm whales feeding even in the most remote reaches of Earth’s oceans have built up stunningly high levels of toxic and heavy metals, according to American scientists who say the findings spell danger not only for marine life but for the millions of humans who depend on seafood.

A report released Thursday noted high levels of cadmium, aluminum, chromium, lead, silver, mercury and titanium in tissue samples taken by dart gun from nearly 1,000 whales over five years. From polar areas to equatorial waters, the whales ingested pollutants that may have been produced by humans thousands of miles away, the researchers said.

“These contaminants, I think, are threatening the human food supply. They certainly are threatening the whales and the other animals that live in the ocean,” said biologist Roger Payne, founder and president of Ocean Alliance, the research and conservation group that produced the report.

The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million.

A lot of environmental skeptics have argued that the ocean is too big to pollute, and maybe it is. But apparently we don’t need to pollute the whole ocean, just the food chain that lives in it. And that we appear to have done to a fare-thee-well.

And if I understand this correctly, which I may not, the process appears to be irreversible. And if these contaminants affect whales the way they do humans, eventually the concentrations will build to the point at which they kill whales outright, if they don’t first disrupt reproduction by causing congenital defects that either affect fertility or outright kill the animals before they’re mature enough to reproduce:

Payne said sperm whales, which occupy the top of the food chain, absorb the contaminants and pass them on to the next generation when a female nurses her calf. “What she’s actually doing is dumping her lifetime accumulation of that fat-soluble stuff into her baby,” he said, and each generation passes on more to the next. … “I don’t see any future for whale species except extinction,” Payne said.

And this finding suggests a direct public health threat to many people:

Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people. [Actually, as phrased, this assertion makes a bit of a leap without spelling out a connection. Yes, some people eat whale meat, but nowhere near 1 billion, and the number for whom whale meat is a staple is minuscule. So I’m guessing that what they’re saying is that fish that are a staple for humans are also being contaminated by some of the same sources that are contaminating whales, but the story doesn’t spell that out. — Lex]

“You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on,” he said.

We’ve fouled our nest, folks, and if we don’t do something pretty drastic, it’s going to kill us.

And whether we can save ourselves or not, I’m skeptical that we can do anything about the whales. We have ways of treating heavy-metal poisoning in people, but I’m not aware of any facilities capable of applying the same treatments to whales. (Smaller ones such as orcas, maybe, but sperm whales? No. Besides which, would YOU want to be the one to tell a killer whale, “OK, hold still while we flush out your digestive tract with this activated-charcoal solution and/or polyethylene glycol mixed with electrolytes”?)

I am not a marine biologist, so I may be wrong (and certainly hope so), but I think the whales are goners. I just hope we can muster the will to do what needs to be done to save ourselves.

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