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

Bob Rypma, left, and Jim Tiviotdale, former and current Kitimat Flying Club presidents, respectively, standing on the moss-covered runway at the Kitimat Air Park, which will be redone in the coming year thanks to a grant approved by the BC Airports Access Program. (Clare Rayment photo)
Kitimat Air Park to get major refurbishment, helipad

The club has been in the process of applying for the grant for two years, including two applications

WorkSafeBC is investigating after a death at a Kitimat concrete plant last Friday (Oct. 23) (Black Press file photo)
BC Coroners Service, WorkSafeBC investigating after death at Kitimat worksite

The fatality occurred last Friday (Oct. 23) and investigations into the incident are underway

Louise Avery is the longest serving Curator and Director at the Kitimat Museum. Here, she’s standing in front of the new Haisla Heritage Section, which they worked hard on with Haisla members and organizations to ensure it was an accurate and respectful display of artifacts.
In Our Valley: Louise Avery

Louise Avery has been the Director and Curator at the Kitimat Museum for over 24 years

Nechako Toastmasters member Eleanor Kendall performing a speech as Mrs. Claus at a meeting when they were still meeting in person, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Wanda Shaw photo)
Turning fears into confidence: Kitimat Toastmasters go online amidst COVID-19

Nechako Toastmasters have moved virtual amidst COVID-19 restrictions

<em>Black Press file photo </em>
Clare’s Corner: Yes, love is strange — and an addiction

A little bit of love to help get you through those Monday blues

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. records 217 more COVID-19 cases, mask use urged

Infection spike continues, 21 senior facilities affected

Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1 to win the baseball World Series in Game 6 Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
L.A. Dodgers beat Rays 3-1 to win 1st World Series title since 1988

National League champs claim crown in six games

Seven-year-old Aaliyah Rosa was found dead in an apartment in Langley in July. (Langley Advance Times files)
Child’s body cold, no pulse: Off-duty cop testifies in Langley mother’s murder trial

The seven-year-old girl’s mother faces a first-degree murder charge

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Tyrell Giroux was arrested by Williams Lake RCMP on Sunday, Oct. 25. (Facebook video screenshot)
Tsilhqot’in leaders call for suspension of officers seen in controversial Williams Lake arrest

Disturbing video demands an immediate, independent investigation, says TNG

People march during a climate strike in Montreal, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Judge rejects 15 youths’ climate change lawsuit against Canadian government

Justice Michael Manson has granted the government’s motion to strike the plaintiffs’ claim

A woman walks through check in at WestJet at Pearson International airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Strong support for pre-flight COVID testing ahead of upcoming WestJet trial: YVR

Airport is partnering with UBC, which is helping choose the method of pre-flight testing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau provides an update on the COVID pandemic during a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau says pandemic ‘really sucks,’ and that Christmas gatherings are up in the air

The prime minister encouraged residents to continue to follow the advice of local health authorities

The Williams Lake Indian Band is stipulating no-go zones for mushroom picking in areas burned by last summer’s wildfires. 100 Mile Free Press photo
Who controls mushroom harvesting on Indigenous lands?

‘We don’t necessarily know where the mushrooms grow, how old the stands need to be, those types of things.’

Most Read