Chemical Pollution Threatens Marine Life, by Andy Rogan

In a rare move, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have tried to revoke their temporary approval of a new pesticide on to the market.

The decision has sparked fear amongst the industry which creates these pesticides over concerns that this might represent a more long-term shift in policy, whilst offering hope to activists who have long been pushing for more stringent safety protocols which all new pesticides must pass.

The EPA are basing this move on evidence that suggests that the pesticide under question, flubendiamide, bio-accumulates in fresh and salt water ecosystems, inhibiting the ability of key environmental drivers to perform necessary biological functions. This can ultimately lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems.

At Ocean Alliance, we cannot claim to fully understand the regulations which the EPA and industry must conform to regarding the release of new pesticides on to the market. What we do understand are the potential risks of pesticides and other pollutants, and how incredibly important it is that robust safety measures must be implemented and carefully adhered too before a product is deemed suitable for the open market. Whilst this might be costly to the industry, the risks of not doing so are potentially catastrophic.

The January 1979 National Geographic magazine included an article written by our Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne, an article famous for featuring a song sheet of Roger’s whale recordings, which was at the time the most produced song sheet in history. What fewer people know is that in the same article Roger made the following statement:

‘Pollution has replaced the harpoon as a mortal threat to whales, and in its way can be far more deadly. If we ignore the dangers of tanker spills, industrial contamination, and simple human carelessness, then nothing can save the whales.’

38 years later, we can definitively say that Roger was correct. Chemical pollution is one of the greatest threats marine mammals face: in my opinion it is one of the three greatest dangers together with the growing threat of climate change & ocean acidification, and bycatch in global commercial fisheries, which is estimated to result in the mortality of well over 600,000 marine mammals every year. We are constantly releasing a suite of new chemicals into the ocean environment, many of which can take some time to bio-accumulate and begin negatively affecting the marine ecosystem. By the time robust evidence exists to prove this, the damage is already well and truly done. At the most recent Marine Mammal Conference in San Francisco, Ocean Alliance scientists sat in on a lecture in which NOAA scientists discussed the findings of their latest research in which they were monitoring toxicants in the waters off of California. Of the number of toxicants detected, between 30-40% were entirely unknown. This is an incredibly worrying statistic.

The threat of organic pollutants (which includes many pesticides) has long been recognised and has resulted in many compounds, such as the insecticide DDT and the widely used industrial compounds PCBs, being banned across much of the world. In 2004 the international community came together to meet this growing threat, signing the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an attempt to reduce or eliminate the release of POPs into the environment.

Recent studies however have suggested that some toxicants can have significant negative consequences to the marine environment even at low doses and many years after their use is banned. Researchers at The Zoological Society of London have one of the longest running data sets on PCBs in the world. Their research strongly suggests that PCBs today represent THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT to marine mammal apex predators in Europe, a full THIRTY YEARS after they were banned. Indeed they are recognised as the most likely reason the last resident population of Killer whales (Orca) no longer have the capability to breed, meaning that population, with its unique culture and language, is functionally extinct. Levels of PCBs are similar in coastal waters of the United States and it is likely that they are having a similar effect on marine mammal populations there and all over the world in areas which PCBs were readily used.

Of these many thousands of new chemicals being released annually, all it takes is for one to be a new ‘PCB’, before enormous damage is done to life in our oceans. The economic costs of this would be colossal, not to mention the costs to the environment (though of course the two are very much inseparable). Certainly, they would dwarf the economic benefits of releasing a pesticide early without proper safety checks.

As above, we do not claim to know whether the EPA guidelines and safety measures regarding the approval of new chemicals are robust enough or not. But we do know that if they are not robust enough, we are likely causing harm to the environment which will make its effects known for many, many years to come. Since Roger made his statement in 1979, Ocean Alliance has been striving to save our oceans and marine mammals by studying this ever-growing threat, indeed at the Marine Mammal Conference in December 2015, four papers were presented using data collected during the 2000-2005 Voyage of the Odyssey and the 2010-2014 Gulf of Mexico program.

Here is the link to the original article on NPR.

Andy Rogan is Scientific Coordinator at Ocean Alliance.