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Health risk-based evaluation of emerging pollutants in killer whales (Orcinus orca): priority-setting in support of recovery


British Columbia’s killer whale populations are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world and face risks related to the effects of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and related contaminants such as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs). While PCBs have long been banned, they continue to present toxic risks to marine mammals, along with a number of other, newly emerging persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) contaminants. Since PBTs have been identified as a threat to the recovery of all four BC killer whale populations under the auspices of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) (‘threatened’ offshores, transients, and northern residents, and ‘endangered’ southern residents;), documenting the presence, trends and health effects of emerging PBT contaminants represents an important line of research that supports the recovery of the population.

New chemicals have entered the marketplace since the interdiction of PCBs in 1977, and some (including flame retardants polybrominated diphenylethers, PBDEs; polychlorinated naphthalenes, PCNs) have been detected in killer whales and the marine environment. Given the likelihood of significant temporal changes in the composition and concentrations of PBT chemicals since previous measurements in killer whales, updates in killer whales and their prey are timely, as are risk-based assessments of the health effects of these emerging chemicals.

This research will carry out measurements of a number of priority contaminants, including PBDEs, HBCDD, and PCBs (2014-15) and SCCPs, Triclosan and OCPs (2015-16) in BC’s resident and transient killer whales and their primary prey, relate these to health measurements in killer whale biopsies using gene expression techniques (2015-17), and devise a new risk-based list of priority pollutants using resultant data and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR;

The resulting framework will help inform the development and application of Action Plans for listed killer whales under SARA, provide input into chemical management and regulation, the priorities for remediation of contaminated sites, and risk-based assessments of proposed dredge and disposal operations in coastal waters.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2014 - 2017


Pacific: Vancouver Island West Coast

Principal Investigator(s)

Frank Gobas
School for Resource and Environment Management & Department of Biological Sciences
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia

Peter Ross
Adjunct Professor, School for Environmental Studies / Director, Ocean Pollution Research Program, Coastal Ocean Research Institute
University of Victoria, Victoria, BC / Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, BC

Team Member(s)

John K.B. Ford, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Nanaimo, BC

Lance Barrett-Lennard, Cetacean Research Program, Vancouver Aquarium, Vancouver, BC

Gina Ylitalo, NOAA Fisheries, Seattle, Washington, USA

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