Beluga whale

Microplastics found in Arctic fish eaten by beluga whales

Image credit: Mandimiles/Dreamstime

Microplastics are being found in even the most remote of waters, according to Canadian researchers who studied how the particles ended up in the stomachs of beluga whales through prey.

The study, conducted by researchers at Simon Fraser University, investigated five different species of Arctic fish known to be eaten by beluga whales. Of the fish studied, 21 per cent were found to have microplastic particles in their gastrointestinal tracts.

Coupled with the findings of the team’s previous work, which looked at the amount of microplastic found in beluga stomachs, the researchers estimate that the whales ingest upwards of 145,000 particles of microplastics a year.

Rhiannon Moore, the lead author of the study, said that while the potential health impacts on belugas are unknown, the findings underscore how pervasive plastics are in these regions.

“When we first investigated seven different beluga stomachs and found microplastics in all of them, I was quite surprised,” Moore said. “These are animals that were in very remote northern areas and it wasn’t just one kind of plastic that we found.”

Microplastic fibres, found in textiles and clothing, made up 78 per cent of the particles found in the stomachs of fish, Moore explained.

According to the research team, this is the first study to document microplastics in the stomachs of fish from the Eastern Beaufort Sea, located north of the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Alaska.

The prevalence of microplastics in oceans is an emerging environmental concern, and Moore said the studies show how nowhere is immune.

“We use so much plastic in our society, and when improperly discarded, they break apart into smaller and smaller pieces, and that makes them easy to be transported in ocean environments,” she said.

“The results just further point to the reality that microplastics don’t stay in one place. They move through the air, the water, they’re in sediment and now we understand they’re moving through the food chain.”

Moore said the studies only provide a snapshot in time and stressed how researchers don’t know how long microplastics may stay in the digestive tract of animals or how they may be detrimental to their health. But the study points to a need for humans to make more of an effort to reduce the amount of plastic waste we produce.

“This study adds to our long list of pollutants that end up in the Arctic, and highlights the need for urgent action to stem the release of plastics and microplastics in the more densely populated south,” added Peter Ross, senior scientist at Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

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