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article imageMicroplastics found in all arctic beluga whales tested

By Karen Graham     Nov 22, 2019 in Environment
Tuktoyaktuk - Canadian researchers working with hunters from the Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk, in the Northwest Territories in Canada, were surprised to find microplastics in the digestive systems of beluga whales hunted for food.
The area around Tuktoyaktuk in the Eastern Beaufort Sea is remote, and not the first choice for a place to find microplastics - yet the research team did find microplastics in the stomachs and intestines of all seven belugas that were harvested.
Tuktoyaktuk lies north of the Arctic Circle on the shores of the Arctic Ocean and is the only community in Canada on the Arctic Ocean that is connected to the rest of Canada by road. This settlement has been used by the native Inuvialuit for centuries as a place to harvest caribou and beluga whales.
Scientists involved in the study came from Simon Fraser University, the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Their findings were published in the online Marine Pollution Bulletin on November 13, 2019.
According to CTV News Canada, Ocean Wise says this was the first study on microplastics in marine mammals in Canada, while lead author Rhiannon Moore said she wasn't expecting to see so many microplastics that far north.
"It actually surprised me at first. I thought, this is a far-north top predator in the Arctic in a fairly remote place," Moore says in an interview.
About 350 bits of plastic bits and fibers were found. most of the pieces were less than two millimeters in size, and about half of the total pieces were polyethylene terephthalate (PET), commonly used as bottled water and other drinks containers. According to the study, "We estimate that each whale contained 18 to 147 microplastics in their GI tract (average of 97 ± 42 per individual).
Microplastics have now been found in the digestive tracts of healthy bewluga whales harvested for fo...
Microplastics have now been found in the digestive tracts of healthy bewluga whales harvested for food.
Ansgar Walk
Using spectroscopy revealed over eight plastic polymer types, with nearly half being polyester. Fibers made up 49 percent of the microplastic pieces. The study showed just how far microplastics have spread in the environment, and correlates with other studies that focus on the ubiquitous spread of these particles.
"It definitely tells us they're ubiquitous, they're ending up everywhere," she says. "It's a global problem, it's not a contained local problem, so it's going to take a lot of different actors -- government, industries, and consumers -- to try to limit the flow."
Health effects of microplastics
Moore believes the belugas acquired their microplastics from prey fish that had already ingested the plastic pieces, adding that their next study will focus on microplastics in beluga prey.
However, any health effects on the whales, and subsequently, the humans that consume the meat is unknown at this time. But regardless of if the risks to health are minor or will tend to build up to become a major problem - it is still another health issue on top of a number of other concerns the whales and humans are facing in a changing environment.
More about Beluga whales, microplastics, Beaufort sea, marine mammals, Arctic
 
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