2020 Southern Resident Killer Whale Contaminants Technical Working Group Accomplishment Highlights and Recommendations

One of the threats Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) are facing for their survival and recovery, as described in the SRKW Imminent Threat Assessment, is exposure to contaminants.

In 2018, the Southern Resident Killer Whale Contaminants Technical Working Group (TWG) was established to investigate the contaminants threat. The Contaminants TWG mandate was to:

  1. Identify key contaminants of concern, including emerging contaminants
  2. Identify and evaluate the contribution of various contaminant sources to the SRKW, their habitat and their prey
  3. Develop a framework to assess the effectiveness of existing controls on contaminants that affect SRKW
  4. Develop recommendations for additional measures to address contaminants affecting SRKW, their habitat and their prey

The Contaminants TWG was led by Environment and Climate Change Canada and included representation and engagement from a range of agencies, environmental organizations, and academia including:

1. Identification of key contaminants of concern

A review of published scientific literature along with expert knowledge from the TWG yielded a priority list of contaminants of concern to SRKW and their primary prey, Chinook salmon. This list is updated as new science and monitoring data become available. The contaminants of concern for SRKW and Chinook salmon are categorized by level of concern in the table below:

Prioritized List of Contaminants of Concern to Southern Resident Killer Whales and Chinook salmon

Level of concern to SRKW Health
Contaminants of Concern to Southern Resident Killer Whales
Contaminants of Concern to Chinook Salmon
Tier 1 – Major concern
PCBs1 , DDT1 , PFOS1 , PFOA1
PCBs, DDT, PFOS, PFOA, Copper, phthalates (DEHP), bisphenol family (BPA), Current-Use Pesticides
Tier 2 – Medium concern PBDEs1 , HBCD1 , mercury and organic mercury PBDEs, HBCD, mercury and organic mercury, Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products
Tier 3 – Minor concern chlorinated alkanes, 4-nonylphenol, dieldrin, tributyltin, dibutyltin, triclosan, current use pesticides, biological contaminants PAHs1 , hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds, cadmium, lead, microplastics, biological contaminants

1 PCBs - polychlorinated biphenyls; DDT – dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane; PFOS – perfluorooctanesulfoic acid; PFOA – perfluorooctanoic acid; PBDEs – polybrominated diphenyl ethers; HBCD – Hexabromocyclododecane; PAHs – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons

Beyond the original mandate of identifying key contaminants of concern, over 200 guidelines (including criteria/objectives/reference values) in a variety of environmental compartments (e.g. water, sediment, diet and fish tissue) were compiled for all Tier 1 and 2 contaminants (i.e. those identified to be of major or medium concern). A scientific decision-making framework was developed to determine where existing guideline values can protect whales and their prey and where new or updated guidelines are needed.

2. Evaluation of contaminant sources

Sources of contaminants in the Fraser Basin and coastal areas of the Salish Sea were quantified using data from federal, provincial, and municipal regulatory reporting, published reports, and open data government sources. Data were compiled into an inventory of pollutants affecting SRKW and their prey. Where data were insufficient, releases were estimated from published reports and scientific studies. In addition, a mapping tool (the Pollutants Affecting Whales and their Prey Inventory Tool – PAWPIT) was created to visualize sources of contaminants, ambient loads, and comparisons of contaminant concentrations to environmental quality guidelines.

3. Effectiveness Evaluation Framework

An Effectiveness Evaluation Framework (EEF) was developed to:

A pilot study using PCBs and copper was conducted to further refine the EEF.

4. Recommendations

To move recovery efforts forward, the Contaminants TWG identified and agreed on four areas of work that represent remaining gaps for SRKW recovery, with respect to the threat of contaminants:

The recommendations both recognize the considerable work underway by all TWG participants and also indicate that new activities by TWG participants are necessary as both the science and the solutions expand. 

Recommendations Actions underway New actions
Develop and implement further controls Finalize a decision-making scientific framework to inform guidelines by identifying where existing guideline values can be accepted and where new or updated guidelines are needed

Advance work on the Burrard Inlet Water Quality Objectives for contaminants of concern

Implement and enforce the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations (2012) to combat contaminants of concern, such as PFAS

Enhance regulatory controls for contaminants as necessary

Prevent and reduce plastic waste through the Ocean Plastics Charter and the Canada-wide strategy on zero plastic waste

Use the Framework for Environmental Risk Assessment of Pesticides to assess risks to ecological receptors and to identify potential risk management measures as required

Encourage and coordinate with other nations to reduce contamination (e.g., via international instruments such as Stockholm, Minamata)

Consider SRKW in wastewater management by upgrading wastewater treatment plants in the Salish Sea area at a minimum as required through the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations (2012)

Make informed decisions that take into account available scientific data
Develop a diet and sediment environmental quality guideline derivation protocol for bioaccumulative substances that is protective of higher trophic level marine mammals (i.e. SRKWs)

Recommend the use of guidelines for contaminants to protect SRKW and Chinook salmon and make these guidelines public

Fill priority data gaps as identified in the TWG’s decision-making scientific framework

Compare environmental concentrations to the suite of recommended guidelines

Adopt or add guidelines that protect SRKW as policy

Develop regulatory controls for contaminants as necessary

Prevent and reduce plastic waste in the marine environment

Consider bans on certain plastic materials

Create improvements and/or expand Extended Producer Responsibility programs to include some single-use plastics and make changes to the deposit systems in BC
Share data, information and knowledge amongst partners to inform decision-making Continue to make data publicly available and easily accessible

Incorporate data into the Pollutants Affecting Whales and their Prey Inventory Tool (PAWPIT) as feasible

Foster and develop local relationships in BC to promote and encourage collaboration and efficiencies to reduce contaminants

Collaborate to coordinate water quality and biological monitoring amongst stakeholders and develop processes, procedures, tools to share data

Continue to produce the publicly available Pesticide Sales and Use Survey reports to share updated data on the types of pesticides that are sold and used in BC
Increase collaboration amongst partners (including regulators and those collecting monitoring data) as well as sharing data, information and expertise

Share previously internal data publicly

Organize and maintain a focused multi-stakeholder group for collaboration and advice

Investigate the coordination of environmental monitoring of pesticides

Share provincial contaminated sites and authorized discharge data electronically
Conduct research and monitoring to further our understanding of contaminants in the environment and their impacts Conduct research and monitoring of contaminants of concern to SRKW and Chinook salmon and their habitats (e.g. Ocean Wise Conservation Association’s monitoring programs, the Government of Canada’s Whale Initiative, university experts)

Maintain coordination amongst researchers and use standardized methods for sampling where available and appropriate

Identify hotspots for contaminants of concern and where action needs to be taken to mitigate these effects
Identify research gaps (i.e. key research questions)

Investigate the feasibility of a standard testing protocol for microplastics in water, sediment and aquatic animal tissues

Use information from PAWPIT to inform further activities

Develop a model for total maximum daily loading of contaminants of concern (i.e. the max amount of chemicals that could be released to the system)
Undertake outreach, education, and engagement to inform the public and involve them in solutions Building an empowered, active and knowledgeable community through creative, inclusive, and impactful communication tools and outreach events

Continue the established education and outreach programs (e.g. Ocean Wise Conservation Association’s Plastic Wise initiative, Shoreline Cleanups, Ocean Education and Leadership programs for children and youth, and Pollution Tracker)
Undertake and support further outreach and education initiatives regarding contaminants

Develop interpretive signs and in-person interpretive programs
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