A pioneering study of seven beluga whales in Canada’s remote Arctic waters has found microplastics in the innards of every single one. Ocean Wise researcher and Simon Fraser University masters student Rhiannon Moore extracts a sample from beluga whale intestines at the Ocean Wise Plastics Lab in Vancouver in a November 2019 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ocean Wise, Valeria Vergara, *MANDATORY CREDIT*

Study finds microplastics in all remote Arctic beluga whales tested

Lead author Rhiannon Moore says she wasn’t expecting to see so many microplastics so far north

A pioneering study of seven belugas in Canada’s remote Arctic waters has found microplastics in the innards of every single whale.

Researchers from Ocean Wise worked with hunters from the Inuvialuit community of Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., to collect samples from whales they harvested between 2017 and 2018.

They found an average of nearly 10 microplastics, or particles less than five millimetres in size, in the gastrointestinal tracts of each beluga.

The study was published last week in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and conducted in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Simon Fraser University.

Ocean Wise says it is the first study of microplastics in a marine mammal in Canada.

Lead author Rhiannon Moore says she wasn’t expecting to see so many microplastics so 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.

It demonstrated just how far microplastics can travel and how they’ve penetrated even the most remote environments, she says.

“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.”

READ MORE: BC Liquor Stores to move fully to paper bags by March

Nine different types of plastic polymers were identified in the animals, with polyester being the most common.

While Moore says she believes they would have passed through the whales’ digestive tracts without any immediate consequences, there’s still very little known about the potential long-term health effects of prolonged exposure.

It’s also unknown how the microplastics entered the whales, but Moore says she thinks they most likely ate fish that had already ingested the plastic.

Her next study will focus on microplastics in beluga prey.

Moore says the community of about 900 people, who live on the shores of the Eastern Beaufort Sea north of the Arctic Circle, was a key partner in the project. The whales are an important source of nutrition and are closely monitored for contaminants.

It gave the researchers the advantage of studying healthy specimens, compared with studies in other parts of the world that have looked at microplastics in whales found dead.

“There have been some European studies on whales that have essentially washed up and that’s another reason why this study is unique — these whales, they didn’t wash up on a beach so there’s not really that bias where they’re already sick or injured. They are a healthy population,” Moore says.

Moore says she suspects marine mammals closer to populated areas are likely to ingest even more microplastics than the Arctic belugas.

“It does raise questions about what other whales might be exposed to,” she says. “I definitely think about that, that’s a question that keeps me up at night a little bit.”

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

BC SPCA team helps discover new feline virus after outbreak at Quesnel shelter

Fechavirus is a kind of parvovirus, which makes cats and kittens very sick

COVID-19 highlights lack of connectivity in First Nations communities

Many don’t have access required to utilize online platforms, says First Nations Technology Council

Commercial salmon fisheries delayed for Bella Coola area

DFO notice says Area C gill net fisheries in Area 8 have been delayed until June 15

Pacific Coastal won’t open until community is ready

The company has suspended operations until further notice

VIDEO: Injured bald eagle rescued in B.C. First Nations community

Bird suspected injured in fight, whisked off to Coquitlam rehab

B.C.’s Central Kootenay region declares state of emergency, issues evacuation orders

The evacuation alert covers all areas except the Cities of Castelgar and Nelson

‘I’m afraid’: Witnesses of wolf attack on senior near Prince Rupert worried about safety

Frank Russ shows where the unprovoked wolf attacked his father

Protesters prepare to rally against racism in front of Vancouver Art Gallery

Rally is in response to the deaths of black Americans and a Toronto woman

Protesters rally against anti-black, Indigenous racism in Toronto

Police estimated the crowd to be between 3,500 and 4,000 and said there was no violence

Feds earmark $1.5M to support recovery of B.C., Indigenous tourism

B.C. money will be split between Vancouver Island and Indigenous tourism

‘We’re sick of it’: Anger over police killings shatters U.S.

Tens of thousands marched to protest the death of George Floyd

Surrey mayor’s party under fire for ‘sickening’ tweet accusing northern B.C. RCMP of murder

Mayor Doug McCallum says tweet, Facebook post ‘sent out by unauthorized person’

Father’s Day Walk Run for prostate cancer will be virtual event this year throughout B.C.

The annual fundraiser for Prostate Cancer Foundation BC has brought in $2.5 million since 1999

Most Read