By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
As technology has developed over the past ten years, toxins in marine mammals have become an emerging issue. Environmental toxins are anything that can pose a risk to the health of plants or animals at a dosage. They can be natural or synthetic with varying levels of toxicity based on the organism and its physiology. Most prior research on the impacts toxins before the 2000s was conducted on land or in streams because of human proximity to these environments. However. with advancements in sampling methods, increasing precision in laboratory testing, and additional focus from researchers, marine mammals are being assessed for toxin loads more regularly.
Marine mammals live most of their lives in the ocean or other aquatic systems, which requires additional insulation for protection from both cold temperatures and water exposure. This added insulation can take the form of lipid rich blubber, or fur and hair. Many organic toxins are lipid soluble and therefore are more readily found and stored in fatty tissues. When an organic toxin like a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) is released into the environment from an old electrical transformer, it persists in sediments. As these sediments travel down rivers and into the ocean, these toxic substances slowly degrade in the environment and are lipophilic (attracted to fat). Small marine critters eat the sediment with small quantities of toxins, then larger critters eat those small critters and ingest larger quantities of toxins. This process is called biomagnification. By the time a dolphin consumes large contaminated fishes, the chemical levels may have reached a toxic level.
Marine mammal scientists are teaming with biochemists and ecotoxicologists to better understand which toxins are more lethal and have more severe long-term effects on marine mammals, such as decreased reproduction rates, lowered immune systems, and neurocognitive delays. Studies have already shown that higher contaminant loads in dolphins cause all three of these negative effects (Trego et al. 2019). As a component of my thesis work on bottlenose dolphins I will be measuring contaminant levels of different toxins in blubber. Unfortunately, this research is costly and time-consuming. Many studies regarding the effects of toxins on marine mammals are funded through the US government, and this is where the public can have a voice in scientific research.
Prior to the 1960s, there were no laws regarding the discharge of toxic substances into our environment. When Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring” and catalogued the effects of pesticides on birds, the American public began to understand the importance of environmental regulation. Once World War II was over and people did not worry about imminent death due to wartime activities, a large portion of American society focused on what they were seeing in their towns: discharges from chemical plants, effluents from paper mills, taconite mines in the Great Lakes, and many more.
However, it was a very different book regarding pollutants in the environment that caught my attention – and that of a different generation and part of society – even more than “Silent Spring”. A book called “The Lorax”. In this 1972 children’s illustrated book by Dr. Seuss, a character called the Lorax “speaks for the trees”. The Lorax touches upon critical environmental issues such as water pollution, air pollution, terrestrial contamination, habitat loss, and ends with the poignant message, “Unless someone like you cared a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Within a decade, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was formed and multiple acts of congress were put in place, such as the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act, with a mission to “protect human health and the environment.” The public had successfully prioritized protecting the environment and the government responded. Before this, rivers would catch fire from oil slicks, children would be banned from entering the water in fear of death, and fish would die by the thousands. The resulting legislation cleaned up our air, rivers, and lakes so that people could swim, fish, and live without fear of toxic substance exposures.
Fast forward to 2018 and times have changed yet again due to fear. According to a Pew Research poll, terrorism is the number one issue that US citizens prioritize, and Congress and the President should address. The environment was listed as the seventh highest priority, below Medicare (“Majorities Favor Increased Spending for Education, Veterans, Infrastructure, Other Govt. Programs.”). With this societal shift in priorities, research on toxins in marine mammals may no longer grace the covers of the National Geographic, Science, or Nature, not for lack of importance, but because of the allocation of taxpayer funds and political agendas. Meanwhile, long-lived marine mammals will still be accumulating toxins in their blubber layers and we, the people, will need to care a whole lot, to save the animals, the plants, and ultimately, our planet.
“Majorities Favor Increased Spending for Education, Veterans, Infrastructure, Other Govt. Programs.” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Pew Research Center, 11 Apr. 2019, www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/little-public-support-for-reductions-in-federal-spending/pp_2019-04-11_federal-spending_0-01-2/.
Marisa L. Trego, Eunha Hoh, Andrew Whitehead, Nicholas M. Kellar, Morgane Lauf, Dana O. Datuin, and Rebecca L. Lewison. Environmental Science & Technology 2019 53 (7), 3811-3822. DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.8b06487