2020-2021 Southern Resident Killer Whale Contaminants Technical Working Group Accomplishments Report

The Contaminants Technical Working Group (TWG) was formed in 2018 in response to the imminent threat assessed by the Government of Canada (GoC) to the Southern Resident Killer Whale. Together, the GoC in partnership with the Province of British Columbia, municipalities, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and academic groups, has focused its efforts to ensure the survival and recovery of the Southern Resident Killer Whale by addressing the threat of contaminants through the Contaminants TWG.

In March 2020, the Contaminants TWG released its recommendations centered in four areas of action including those already underway to address contaminants affecting the Southern Resident Killer Whale, their habitat and their prey:

Accomplishments 2020-2021

Although there were limitations due to the global pandemic, especially for field and laboratory research, many actions were able to continue. The following provides an update of progress between March 2020 and March 2021. It includes both direct actions taken by the Contaminants TWG members, as well as complementary actions across multiple programs, agencies and collaborators that support the implementation of the Contaminants TWG recommendations.

Develop and implement further controls

Develop guideline derivation protocol for the protection of marine mammals from bioaccumulative substances: A steering committee with a terms of reference and a budget will develop a protocol outlining how to derive environmental quality guidelines (EQGs) for sediment, water, tissue and diet for bioaccumulative substances to protect marine mammals. The committee has contracted an external panel with expertise in human health and ecosystem modelling to contribute to and review methodologies.

Recommend guidelines for use: Fifty-nine (59) EQGs (XLS) for priority contaminants have been recommended for use based on a scientific decision framework to protect the Southern Resident Killer Whale and/or its prey the Chinook salmon.

Address environmental quality guideline data gaps: Guidelines for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are in development for water, sediment, soil, tissue and diet by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), as well as water and sediment quality guidelines for triclocarban and metformin.

Compare environmental concentrations to recommended guidelines and toxicity reference values:

Adopt guidelines protective of the Southern Resident Killer Whale as a policy: The B.C. Ministry of the Environment and Climate Strategy (BC ENV) updated their working water quality guidelines (PDF) to incorporate the guidelines recommended by the Contaminants TWG. This includes the more stringent PCB guidelines.

Burrard Inlet water quality objectives: Water quality objectives (WQOs) for Burrard Inlet are being updated or developed and are being co-approved by Tsleil-Waututh Nation and BC ENV. Water, sediment and tissues objectives for cadmium, microplastics, and PPCPs have been completed and objectives for copper, lead, nickel, zinc, microbiological indicators, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are being finalized. A broad range of other contaminants in the Inlet is being screened and additional objectives are in development. ECCC-recommended guidelines for the Southern Resident Killer Whale and their prey are being considered in the development of the WQOs, and human-health-based screening values for tissue were calculated. All reports and updated policy are posted on the Government of BC website.

Encourage and coordinate with other nations to reduce contamination: Canada is actively engaged internationally as a party to the Minamata Convention on Mercury and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

Enforcement of regulations: ECCC’s Enforcement Branch completed an analysis to identify intervention opportunities to reduce pollution affecting whales, their natural habitat and food sources to focus enforcement efforts on areas of higher risk for non-compliance.

Wastewater treatment plant upgrades: The new McLoughlin Point wastewater treatment plant is now operating. This tertiary wastewater treatment plant can treat 108 megalitres of wastewater per day and will significantly improve the quality of water released into its surrounding waters and Southern Resident Killer Whale habitat.

Extended producer responsibility, disposal of plastic waste to the environment, ban on plastics: The Government of British Columbia has made commitments regarding plastic waste in the marine environment and single-use plastics:

Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances Regulations (PCTSR): The proposed amendments to the PCTSR should be published in fall 2021. They include further restrictions for PFOS its salts and precursors, PFOA its salts and precursors, long-chain perfluorocarboxylic acids (LC-PFCA) and their salts and precursors, hexobromocyclododecane (HBCD), and PBDEs. The amendment will also prohibit two additional flame retardants Declorane Plus (DP) and decarbromodiphenyl ethane (DBDPE), should their final screening assessment reports confirm that they are toxic under section 64 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA).

Oceans Plastics Charter and Canada-Wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste: In October 2020, the Government of Canada announced its next step in its plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. Part of the plan is a ban on harmful single-use plastic items where there is evidence that they are found in the environment, are often not recycled, and have readily available alternatives, including: plastic checkout bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery, and food ware made from hard-to-recycle plastics.

Conduct Research and Monitoring


Air contaminants: Passive air samplers were deployed starting in February 2020 at 25 locations across the Salish Sea to identify and quantify atmospheric contaminant sources to local areas. Not all were deployed at the same time due to restrictions and permission to install the samplers. Samples were retrieved in summer/fall of 2020 and tested for non-polar organic contaminants. To assess distant sources of non-polar contaminants at background sites (atmospheric loading), active air (24 hours once per month) and precipitation (monthly aggregates) samplers were deployed on Saturna Island from December 2019 to November 2020. Samples were retrieved and are undergoing analysis. Passive water samplers designed to identify and quantify atmospheric contaminant sources to rivers and coastal waters for non-polar chemicals were also deployed at the Pacific Science Enterprise Centre for various lengths of time (10 to 40 days) to test performance. Additional sites are being considered for future passive water sampler deployment. Reduced access to laboratory space due to COVID-19 restrictions led to analysis delays.

Freshwater / sediment: Freshwater and sediment monitoring was significantly affected by COVID-19 restrictions starting in March 2020. In addition to data lost due to several months of sampling inactivity, some samples that were taken prior to the March 2020 shutdown were lost due to hold time exceedances. ECCC was able to return to the field in December 2020 to three out of six monitoring sites. As of January 2021, five out of six sites have been sampled for water on a monthly basis. Sampling at the remaining site (Thompson River) has not been restarted due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Sediment sampling, which is conducted annually, was completed for five of the sites. Due to COVID-19 restrictions and ECCC laboratory capacity, some sample analysis has been shifted to external laboratories.

Wastewater: Fieldwork was not possible due to COVID-19 restrictions. Planning is underway to resume wastewater sampling in 2021 at previous sites should restrictions be lifted.

Landfill leachate: Landfill leachate sampling occurred at all four designated sites. Three sampling events have occurred (next in spring 2021) and data are currently being interpreted.

Disposal at Sea (DAS): Sampling by ECCC was suspended at DAS sites due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, DFO was able to collect eight sediment samples in July 2020 at the Johnstone Strait site and results are expected in summer 2021. Planning for the 2021 sampling season is underway and ECCC is coordinating with DFO and other groups to conduct opportunistic sampling if possible.

Southern Resident Killer Whale food web: Sampling by DFO was not affected by COVID-19 restrictions: 400 adult Chinook, 15 juvenile Chinook, 15 Pacific sand lance, and over 200 Pacific herring samples were collected in partnership with DFO colleagues and recreational anglers, Pacheedaht First Nation, Raincoast Conservation Foundation and the Albion Test Fishery. Stock analysis and sub-sampling is underway for dietary tracers and contaminant analysis.

Scientific Research

Fisheries and Oceans Canada:

Ocean Wise – Pollution Tracker: Phase 2 of Ocean Wise’s Pollution Tracker is winding down with additional data expected to become available in spring 2021. Phase 3 of Pollution Tracker will begin in 2021 using new sampling sites. A characterization of hotspots for PCBs, PBDEs, OCPs, PFAS, HBCD, and mercury is underway in sediment collected in collaboration with DFO and ECCC-DAS from over 100 sites in the Salish Sea.

Biological effects of contaminants on the Southern Resident Killer Whale: Ocean Wise and DFO are collaborating to assess biological effects of contaminants on Southern Resident Killer Whales and their prey. Analysis of mercury, PCBs and PBDEs is being done using skin and blubber biopsy samples and endocrine disruption is being assessed through gene expression. Ocean Wise and Metro Vancouver are also collaborating to learn more about microplastics, especially microfibers found in wastewater.


Identifying Contaminant Hotspots and Sources:

Share data, information, and knowledge among partners

ECCC hosted a Whales Contaminants Science meeting on February 23 and 24, 2021. The objectives of the meeting included giving researchers an opportunity to share scientific advances with colleagues to identify synergies and potential areas of collaboration. The meeting also served to facilitate discussion on potential avenues to share data amongst partners. ECCC will seek additional information on the process of using the Government of Canada’s Open Data portal to share data publicly.

Undertake outreach and education

Raising public awareness

Look ahead

The Contaminants TWG made good progress implementing its March 2020 recommendations that support the recovery of the Southern Resident Killer Whale and their prey from the threat of contaminants. While a solid foundation of work was completed over the last year, continued efforts will be required to further advance the recommendations. This includes launching the PAWPIT, finalizing EQGs protective of marine mammals, scientific studies on health effects in Southern Resident Killer Whales and their prey and continuing to collaborate on monitoring, science, and outreach and education. As Contaminants TWG members continue to implement key actions over the short, medium and long-term, the Contaminants TWG will begin to look beyond its recommendations by responding to new science and evaluating emerging threats related to contaminants. This will ensure the collective response to support the recovery and survival of the Southern Resident Killer Whale is agile and effective.

Page details

Date modified: