Beluga Whales: The Canaries in the Coal Mine

In her column, The Tipping Point, Metcalf Institute Fellow Hamida Kinge explains how the current plight of America’s beluga whales could foretell trouble for human populations.

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What happens far out at sea is often the least relevant to the lives of those who live in cities. The complexities of city life require enough attention, so asking city-dwellers to think about the ocean, which may not appear to have an immediate or direct effect on them, is sometimes asking too much. But now, even Oprah is onto the notion that what humans do on land can have disastrous consequences at sea, which can boomerang back to humans. Debris or chemicals that reach the ground in Iowa, for example, can reach the Pacific Ocean through storm runoff. A few weeks ago, Oprah featured ocean explorer Fabien Cousteau (grandson of Jacques Cousteau), who talked about debris and chemical contamination in the Pacific, and explained its potential to reach the human dinner table.

One of the timeliest indicators of how human activity on land can have a direct impact on the sea may be the beluga whale, an animal with DNA similar to that of humans. A smaller member of the whale family, belugas are white and glossy and grow no longer than 18 feet. There are five known beluga populations in the United States. Belugas can be found along coasts, and often congregate to find food in shallow bays or river estuaries. The highly social creatures are often referred to as “canaries of the sea” because of their vocal communication style: They speak through chirps, squeals and other sounds. Today, they are canaries in the coal mine, not only serving as a warning that danger is present, but as a harbinger of future development and land use practices’ effect on not just their health, but on public health.

Though most overhunting of belugas ended in the late 1970s, beluga numbers continue to decline. In Alaska’s Cook Inlet, for example, which sits just south of Anchorage, beluga numbers dropped nearly 50 percent from 1994 to 2007, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Last October, NOAA placed belugas on the Endangered Species list. (Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin strongly opposed this move, denying endangerment. Her motivation was said to have been linked to oil and gas exploration in Alaska.) NOAA believes a series of factors are affecting beluga numbers, including industrial activities that discharge or spill pollutants into the Inlet and continued development within and along the upper Cook Inlet, which cuts into important beluga habitats.*

On a recent episode of PBS’s Ocean Adventures, another Cousteau, Jean-Michel, explored various causes for the decline in beluga populations. One Canadian beluga population, which congregates in the St. Lawrence River estuary just east of Quebec province, is suffering from extremely high rates of cancer, a disease that is very unusual in wild animals. Scientists, such as Dr. Stéphane Lair of the University of Montreal, believe the cause is chemical runoff from industrial activity, which discharges PCBs and other compounds known to cause cancer in animals and humans. Industrial runoff reaches the St. Lawrence all the way from the Great Lakes, a highly industrialized region, and combines with contaminants already present in the St. Lawrence.

The St. Lawrence River is exceedingly contaminated by toxic compounds, including PCBs, DDT, and PAH, another known carcinogen in humans and animals. PAH found in the St. Lawrence is likely from aluminum plants along the Saguenay River, which drains into the St. Lawrence. Between 1983 and 1999, University of Montreal veterinary pathologist Daniel Martineau conducted a study of 129 St. Lawrence belugas and found that 27 percent of the adults had various cancers, which makes it the primary cause of death in that population. Cancer in St. Lawrence belugas accounts for 40 percent of all cancers reported in cetaceans. (It is also worth noting that humans living in the St. Lawrence region also have higher rates of cancer than those living in other parts of Canada.)
Belugas are particularly susceptible to chemical contaminants because they can accumulate a massive load of toxins in their fatty tissue. DDT is one example. Though the synthetic pesticide was banned for most uses in the U.S. in 1972**, it continues to leave a toxic legacy in water bodies because, like PCBs, it does not break down easily in the natural environment. Belugas accumulate more persistent chemicals than any other animal because they are at the top of the food chain.

In the St. Lawrence, they are ingesting high amounts DDT, which settles into river sediment. When belugas eat the large invertebrates from the riverbed, they are not only ingesting the contaminated sediment, but the contaminated animals. Belugas also live quite long, so they accrue toxins as they get older, just as humans do. To boot, many mother belugas are passing the toxicity down to their young through their placenta and their milk. Sound familiar?

The health of the beluga whale is a tangible indicator not only of the effects of development and modern industrial activity on not only marine life, but its potential to boomerang back to humans. As the Cousteaus put it: “What lies ahead for the beluga could become prophecy for species everywhere, including our own.”

*Strandings are also a major factor; NOAA however is still trying to determine the cause of many of the strandings in the Cook Inlet. **Notably, the once-endangered bald eagle began to repopulate in the U.S. after DDT was outlawed

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

Tags: anchorage

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