Killer Whale Habitat Threatened By Toxic Chemicals, Scientists Say Extinction Is Imminent

A killer whale habitat in Europe is being threatened by dangerous chemicals. A new study shows the marine predator is at risk of disappearing in the region unless more pollution restrictions are put in place.

Doing research in the waters surrounding Europe, scientists from Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Slovenia, and Great Britain took samples from 1,000 killer whales, dolphins, and porpoises. As reported by Reuters, the researchers analyzed the samples and found extremely high levels of toxic chemicals known as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl).

Researchers want PCBs to stop contaminating killer whale habitat.
Researchers fear severely contaminated killer whale habitat will cause the eventual extinction of the predator. [Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

PCBs were chemicals often used in paints, electrical equipment, and other industrial applications until they were banned in the late 1970s. However, despite the prohibition decades ago, remnants of PCBs still remain in the environment and continue to leak into the sea even today.

During the study, researchers found the poisonous chemicals concentrated in the blubber of killer whales, striped dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins. According to their findings, water off Europe’s coast has some of the highest levels of PCBs in the world, and marine life in this area is at significant risk. So much so, experts fear an extinction of the orca is imminent.

“It’s really looking bleak… We think there is a very high extinction risk for killer whales as a species in industrialized regions of Europe,” lead author Paul Jepson of the Zoological Society of London, told a telephone news conference.

Manufacturing of PCBs began in the 1920s, but later were suspected of causing numerous health problems, including cancer and reproductive disorders, in humans and animals. As previously reported by the Inquisitr, PCBs have been linked to an increased risk of asthma.

The chemicals were subsequently banned in the U.S. and the European Union.

PCBs, when not properly sealed in storage sites, can leak into rivers and make their way to the seabed. Jepson fears an undetermined amount of PCBs are still out there.

“Europe produced about 300,000 tonnes of PCBs from 1954 to 1984. That was about 15% of the world’s total. A lot of this PCB, we don’t know how much, has not been disposed of and is slowly leaking into rivers and estuaries, from landfills, and eventually into the marine environment.”

Once in the killer whale habitat, creatures like mussels or crabs eat the toxic chemicals. These sea animals are food for larger fish, who are then eventually eaten by predators such as killer whales.

Killer whales in Europe may one day be extinct.
A young killer whale is especially at risk of exposure to PCBs [Photo by Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego via Getty Images]

The PCBs appear to affect breeding success, while at the same time endangering the young life of newborn calves. After a pregnant female gives birth, stored PCBs in her fat are passed on to the offspring through milk. The introduction of toxic chemicals comes at a time when a calf is most vulnerable to detrimental health issues.

It is believed that Europe may have higher levels of PCBs since it banned them later than other parts of the world. According to scientists, there are only eight orcas currently living off the coast of Scotland and Ireland. Of the 36 killer whales in southern Europe, only five calves survived that were born between 1999 and 2011.

“This population is clearly at risk of extinction, and then that is it,” warns Jepson. “PCBs will continue to drive population declines or suppress population recovery in Europe for many decades to come.”

Killer whale populations in many industrialized areas in the North Sea and Mediterranean have already completely disappeared.

Although it may be too late for marine animals in Europe, the results of the marine life study indicate tougher rules are needed to protect killer whale habitats from the contamination of leaking PCBs. The researchers hope the results motivate world leaders to act and definitively resolve the problem of lingering PCBs before orcas and other sensitive marine mammals are gone forever.

Killer whales can grow as long as 33-feet and have a lifespan of almost 100 years. Killer whales are found all over the world, yet tend to thrive in the Arctic and Antarctic where there is less man-made pollution.

[Photo by Mike Aguilera/SeaWorld San Diego via Getty Images]