Toxic Chemicals From Fossil Fuels Are Poisoning East Coast Dolphins and Whales, Study Finds
New toxins and chemicals entering the market are bombarding the ocean and its inhabitants on an unprecedented scale, according to the research that was published Wednesday in Frontiers in Marine Science, as CNN reported. Large ocean mammals that washed up ashore between 2012 and 2018 are similar to a canary in a coal mine, according to Courthouse News, since these animals retain chemical deposits in their blubber and offer a window into the health of the larger ocean ecosystem.
The animals tested comprised toothed whales, which include dolphins, porpoises and other whales like the melon-headed whale and the Cuvier's beaked whale, according to CNN.
"Marine mammals are ecosystem sentinels that reflected anthropogenic threats through their health — which has implications for human health as well," says lead author assistant professor Annie Page-Karjian of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, in a statement.
"For example, many of the species in this study prey upon fishes that are also preferred species for human consumption — so monitoring concentrations of contaminants in these animals provides a relatively low-cost snapshot of the potential exposure risk in humans, as well as other marine animals."
The stranded animals included 11 different species, providing the first evidence for two rarer species: white-beaked dolphin and Gervais' beaked whales, according to Frontiers in Marine Science. The stranded animals represented males and females, young and old, which allowed the scientists to look at differences between the groups.
The results showed that species such as bottlenose dolphins had higher amounts of lead and mercury in their system than pygmy sperm whales. Female bottlenose dolphins had higher levels of arsenic than their male counterparts. Dolphins stranded in Florida displayed higher concentrations of lead, mercury and selenium and lower iron levels than those stranded in North Carolina, according to Courthouse News.
These toxic chemicals mostly enter the ecosystem from the burning of fossil fuels and mining, said Alistair Dove, vice president of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, to CNN. Dove was not involved in the study.
Dolphins like to eat a wide variety of fish, many of which are also eaten by people. For example, dolphins are known to enjoy shrimp and octopus, and on the U.S. East Coast, dolphins like to eat animals like herring, mackerel and flounder, said Page-Karjian, as CNN reported.
"If humans eat a lot of fish that contain too much arsenic and mercury, these metals can poison the liver and other organs, or cause neurological damage to the brain and nervous system," said Dove to CNN.
As Courthouse News noted, the most oceanic pollution begins on land. Septic tanks, vehicles, farms and ranches all use or produce pollutants that eventually make their way into the ocean thanks to runoff. Trash produced far inland eventually makes its way into the ocean via rivers and canals. The scientists note that curbing this upstream pollution from runoff and the use of single plastics would go a long way to helping the oceans heal.
"If we reduce the use of fossil fuels, we can slow the rate of climate change and put fewer pollutants into the ocean," Dove said to CNN. "This applies to mercury, which most often comes from coal-fired power plants, and even plastics, which are ultimately produced from natural gas."
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Hundreds of endangered sea turtles were stranded on beaches after suffering "cold stunning" in the waters off Cape Cod, Mass. Local rescuers and wildlife rehabilitators stabilized the turtles at the New England Aquarium (NEAQ) and National Marine Life Center and began treatment. Many of the sea turtles were transported by land or air to partner facilities around the Eastern Seaboard for longer-term care to make room for more incoming, cold-stunned animals.
Rehabilitators at The Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys assess critically endangered, cold-stunned Kemp's ridley sea turtles flown in after rescue in New England. The Turtle Hospital<p>NEAQ and local rescuers begin seeing turtles every fall when water temperatures drop to that 50 degrees F threshold, and typically expect to find them into early January. After that, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/sea-turtle-cape-cod-weather-2621527394.html" target="_self">temperatures are so cold that any animals found are usually no longer alive</a>.</p><p>Merigo estimated that this year's cold season "looks very busy" and noted that local rescue efforts had already surpassed 400 turtles.</p><p>"It is a lot of animals. They're still coming in," she told EcoWatch as she surveyed 39 rescued turtles that day and 20 the day prior. "So far, this is a huge year."</p><p>At NEAQ, the turtles are gradually warmed up about five to 10 degrees F a day. More aggressive warming can cause serious damage and the turtle might not survive, Merigo said. Emergency treatments also include providing replacement fluids, balancing electrolytes and addressing pneumonia. Assessments take place for other serious problems too, such as shell or limb fractures, frostbite, emaciation and eye damage.<span></span></p><p>As local aquariums don't have the capacity to care for all the injured turtles, a group of private pilots called <a href="https://www.turtlesflytoo.org/" target="_blank">"Turtles Fly Too"</a> donated planes, fuel and time to transport some to various partner facilities around the country. Other turtles were driven to closer care facilities.</p><p>"We have a huge network of really great partners working with us, so if we can spread out the care, we can give better care to all the animals," Merigo said.</p><p>The 40 Kemp's ridley sea turtles recovering in The Turtle Hospital will continue to be treated and rehabilitated anywhere from 30 days to a year, depending on the severity of injuries, Zirkelbach said.</p><p>The turtle expert noted that while she's treated cold-stunned turtles from the north before, the newest arrivals were the most cold-stunned Kemp's ridleys ever received at one time.</p>
After rescue, cold-stunned sea turtles received immediate emergency care and assessments at the New England Aquarium. Caitlin Cunningham / New England Aquarium<p>In the past decade, the Gulf of Maine, which spans from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has warmed 99 percent faster than the rest of the ocean, Zirkelbach said. The warm water encourages turtles that migrate north along the Gulf Stream in warmer months to stay in the bay longer.</p><p>"Turtles that fail to migrate south get stuck in the unique horseshoe-shaped topography of the Cape Cod peninsula, and when temperatures drop, the bay becomes a death trap," she added.</p><p>Before ocean temperatures warmed, the waters of Maine were too cold for many of these sea turtles, Merigo echoed. Now, with warming sea surface temperatures, Maine can reach the high 70s to low 80s, which is "perfect turtle temperature," she said. The potential for more turtles getting trapped in the bay and then cold-stunned is nerve-racking for Merigo.</p><p>In addition to shifting habitats as waters warm, warming global temperatures also disrupt natural gender balance in sea turtles, Merigo warned. Gender is determined by the temperature of eggs in nests, and as the planet warms, it will result in all females at some point, she said.</p><p>"The turtles we work with are all endangered and threatened," Merigo said. "For sea turtles in general, the future is a little grim. Climate change is real; it does impact them."</p>
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