BBC Newsreports that orcas are the most toxic-contaminated mammals in the Arctic. Fat samples recently taken from killer whales in a Norwegian fjord revealed startlingly high levels of pesticides, PCBs, and flame retardants.
Whales in the Arctic may be somewhat more susceptible because toxics often concentrate in the polar regions, but the Norwegian whales are a reminder that the southern resident orcas of Cascadia are also sickened by high levels of toxics. And unlike their Arctic brethren, the whales of BC and Washington are next door neighbors to millions of people and our heavy industry. All those increasingly banned and phased-out flame retardants persist in the environment where they can continue to poison both people and wildlife.
As we begin to plan for protecting the southern residents under the Endangered Species Act, perhaps we should consider testing the southern residents for toxics in a systematic way. The last time one of the southern residents was tested for PCBs (a dead whale that had washed ashore) it registered perhaps the highest levels of contamination ever measured in a killer whale—so high that the machines had to be re-calibrated. Not only would tests help us prioritize the most critical threats to orcas, but their levels of contamination may give us clues about how vigilant we ought to be about toxic-laden consumer products.