American Oceans

Critically Endangered Dolphin Contain Record High Levels of “Forever Chemicals” PFAS

pod of victoria dolphins swimming

A concerning discovery has been made regarding critically endangered Victorian dolphins residing in Australia’s Port Phillip Bay and Gippsland Lakes. New research undertaken by the Marine Mammal Foundation, in collaboration with the Ecotoxicology Research Group from RMIT and Melbourne University, has revealed alarmingly high levels of PFAS pollutants in dolphins within these coastal areas. These findings have significant implications for the conservation and protection efforts required to safeguard these marine mammals.

The ground-breaking study, which adds to the field of vital research on toxicants in our global environment, strongly emphasizes the need for better regulation concerning persistent organic pollutants. The Stockholm Convention targets such pollutants, reflecting international commitment to address the issue. Researchers, like Dr. Kate Robb, PhD, Marine Mammal Foundation Director, and Chantel Foord of RMIT’s Ecotoxicology Research Group, are working tirelessly along Victoria’s coastline to further our understanding of the impact of these pollutants and advocate for necessary conservation actions.

The Burrunan dolphin, identified as a distinct species in 2011 by Dr. Kate Robb, is already facing the critical threat of extinction. With merely 250 individuals found in two populations in Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes, both groups face a high risk of localized extinction.

Increasing our understanding of the threats faced by Burrunan dolphins is vital for their conservation, protection, and the management of these threats. Similarly, recognizing the health impacts and immune-damaging risks associated with PFAS exposure is of great importance.

Concerningly, these critically endangered Victorian dolphins have been found to have the highest level of PFAS exposure worldwide, a major concern due to their vulnerability and risk of extinction. PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are man-made chemicals that contaminate various sources such as firefighting foams, non-stick cookware, food packaging, and more. They can have serious health consequences for marine mammals and humans alike.

Not only do these dolphins face the highest levels of PFAS chemicals, but their health is also compromised at varying life stages, including newborn and juvenile dolphins. High concentrations of these persistent organic pollutants can accumulate in the liver, leading to liver toxicity and posing risks to the entire marine ecosystem.

Due to the bioaccumulating nature of PFAS chemicals, their presence can be traced from wastewater treatment plants and urban landfills, all the way up the food web to fish muscle tissue and ultimately to the already endangered Burrunan dolphins.

The future of Burrunan dolphins is at stake, as the impact of these contaminants might contribute to the risk of extinction. Ongoing research and a better understanding of these emerging chemicals, their sources, and their persistence are crucial to ensure the survival of this critically endangered species.

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