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Beluga whales ingest as many as 145,000 particles of microplastics a year: SFU study

Click to play video: 'SFU research finds high microplastic levels in Belugas whales' SFU research finds high microplastic levels in Belugas whales
Belugas have long been a symbol of the wildness of the Canadian arctic. But now SFU researchers say a study of the animals and their food sources shows microplastic particles are being found in distressingly large quantities in even the most remote waters in the world. Kylie Stanton reports – Oct 20, 2021

Beluga whales ingest upwards of 145,000 particles of microplastics every year, some of which is consumed through their prey, a new Simon Fraser University study has found.

Researchers examined five species of arctic fish eaten by the whales, revealing 21 per cent had microplastic particles in their gastrointestinal tracts.

“We use so much plastic in our society, and when improperly discarded they break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, and that makes them easy to be transported in ocean environments,” said lead author Rhiannon Moore in an SFU news release on Tuesday.

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Microplastics are found in textiles and clothing, and made up 78 per cent of all particles found in the stomachs of fish, according to the university.

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They can be toxic and contain many chemicals that are harmful to wildlife.

The study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, is billed as the first to document microplastics in the stomachs of fish from the Eastern Beaufort Sea, north of the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Alaska.

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It builds on a previous SFU study that examined seven different beluga whale stomachs and found microplastics in all of them, contributing to the estimate that belugas consume more than 145,000 microplastic particles annually.

“These are animals that were in very remote northern areas and it wasn’t just one kind of plastic that we found,” said Moore, who holds a master’s degree in science.

“The results of these studies just further point to the reality that microplastics don’t stay in one place. They move through the air, the water, they’re in sediment and now we understand they’re moving through the food chain.”

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Researchers still don’t know how long microplastics stay in the digestive tracts of animals, Moore added, or the degree of harm they can cause to overall whale health.

Peter Ross, study co-author and a senior scientist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said the report is evidence that serious action is needed to reduce ocean pollution.

“This study adds to our long list of pollutants that end up in the Arctic, and highlights the need for urgent action to stem the release of plastics and microplastics in the more densely populated south,” he said in the news release.

Other collaborators on the study included the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Fisheries Joint Management Committee, local hunters and trappers and communities in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region.

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