Monday, December 6, 2021

East Coast Whales and Dolphins in Trouble

Stepping Stones

It’s no secret that many products we use on land make their way to the sea. Even though some of these items are natural, they contribute to the health issues of many forms of wildlife that dwell within the global waters. Some such substances would be fossil fuels.

These fuels include coal, natural gas, petroleum, oil shales, tar sands and a few more. They all contain carbon and were formed by geological processes acting on the remains of organic matters produced by photosynthesis, a process that began 2 to 4 billion years ago. To put it more plainly, they are materials of biological origin that occur within the Earth’s crust that can be used as a source of energy.

Most of these carbon materials were derived from algae and bacteria prior to 400 million years ago. Afterward, the derivative has come from plants. Since the Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 18th century, the use of fuels has increased, and today they supply more than 80% of all energy consumed by industrially developed countries around the world.

One of the main by-products produced by the heating and combustion of these fuels is carbon dioxide, and large amounts of it have been added to Earth’s atmosphere. Once in the air, these gasses absorb the infrared radiation (heat energy) emitted from our planet and redirect it back to the surface. The heat energy cannot fully penetrate the atmospheric gasses. Also, the major constituent of natural gas is Methane, which has more than doubled its presence in the atmosphere in the last 200 years.

According to some scientists, most oceanic pollution begins on land. A spokesman for the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta stated, “If we reduce the use of fossil fuels, we can slow the rate of climate change and put fewer pollutants into the oceans. This applies to Mercury, which most often comes from coal-fired power and plants, and even plastics, which are ultimately produced from natural gas.” Remember that heat energy being redirected to the planet’s surface that we mentioned a moment ago?

New toxins and chemicals are now flooding the world’s waterways on an unprecedented scale. Animals such as whales and dolphins can retain chemical deposits in their blubber, and this offers a look into the health of a larger ecosystem. They are literally the “canary in the coal mine” of the waterways.

Annie Page-Karjian of Florida Atlantic University, assistant professor of the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, states “Marine mammals are ecosystem sentinels that reflected anthropogenic threats through their health, which has implications for human health as well. 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.”

Her study includes 11 different species of whales and dolphins that have stranded along the shores of the Southeastern United States. Bottlenose dolphins showed a higher amount of lead and mercury in their system than other mammals. Female bottlenose dolphins had higher levels of arsenic than the males. Along the coastline from Florida to North Carolina, the concentrations of lead, mercury, selenium and iron varied in stranded dolphins from one location to another.

Dolphins like to eat a variety of fish, many of which are consumed by people. They also enjoy shrimp and octopus. If these mammals are ingesting toxins from their food supply, and dying, this does not bode well for humans consuming the same products in that same region.

Scientists are discouraging the use of fossil fuels and encouraging the use of alternate sources of energy such as wind and water. It seems quite obvious that the current path is not acceptable and if these multiple species of mammals in our waters continue to die, we best pay attention to the “canary in the coal mine.”

Bob is a naturalist for a dolphin study team on board the Dolphin Explorer. He is the author of two books, with a third being released this Fall, and is an award-winning columnist for this paper. He is extremely proud of his superhero wife, a nurse working the front lines during this pandemic and he loves his wife very much!

One response to “East Coast Whales and Dolphins in Trouble”

  1. Regina P Sheppard says:

    Your articles are always very informative and I thank you for writing them. They are much appreciated.

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