Canada’s whale whisperer: Scientist will keep telling tales of his ocean “colleagues”
By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News
Feb. 25, 2014
Scientist Peter Ross has dedicated his life to understanding ocean inhabitants, or as he calls them, his “colleagues.” As one of the world’s leading ecotoxicologists, Ross examined how ocean pollution harms some of the world’s most compelling creatures, including killer whales, beluga whales, harbor seals and sea otters.
While in his Netherlands in the 1990s, Ross made a groundbreaking discovery that showed industrial chemicals in Baltic Sea fish suppressed the immune systems of harbor seals and likely contributed to mass die-offs. Then, as a research scientist with Canada’s Institute of Ocean Sciences for 17 years, he discovered extremely high contamination of the Pacific Northwest’s killer whales, warning that they were at risk of toxic effects. He also researched contaminants in Chinook salmon and worked with native communities to help them identify risks in their seafood diet.
“It was my dream job,” he said.
That job, however, came to an end last year. Ross and many other scientists were shocked when Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s administration took the ax to the Fisheries and Oceans budget, spurring layoffs and dismantling the institute on Vancouver Island where Ross worked. The institute still operates, but with less staff, and little if any focus on pollution.
“It is with apprehension that I ponder a Canada without any research or monitoring capacity for pollution in our three oceans, or any ability to manage its impacts on commercial fish stocks, traditional foods for over 300,000 aboriginal people and marine wildlife,” Ross wrote in a 2012 opinion piece for Environmental Health News.
“Canada's silence on these issues will be deafening this summer and beyond,” he wrote.
Last week the Vancouver Aquarium announced that Ross will be the founding director and senior scientist of the aquarium’s new Ocean Pollution Science Program. He will be monitoring the health of fish and marine mammals, testing them for contaminants and analyzing any effects on their hormones, immune systems and gene expression. While it will be a much smaller program than what Canada dismantled, Ross hopes it will fill some voids. He spoke to Environmental Health News’ Brian Bienkowski about his new position and getting back to work in the sea.
Q: What is the ocean pollution science program and how does it fit your larger vision for the Vancouver Aquarium?
[The new role] will allow me to continue to practice my trade as a research scientist, and explore priority ocean pollution topics I’ve long pursued. I’ll do research that I value, research that is meaningful and relevant, but I’ll also be providing expert opinion to stakeholders that can do something about it. I can do science, but also educate and advise the private sector, the government and the public.
Q: Which marine contaminants and which marine mammals’ health are you most concerned about?
I’d refer to our work on PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls] 14 years ago showing killer whales [off Washington state/Vancouver Island] were the most PCB-contaminated mammals in the world. [This] shaped many studies trying to figure out where those PCBs are coming from, how they move through environment, and what it means for the health of these mammals.
And many of the persistent organic pollutants – dioxins, DDT, chlordane – are still a threat at the top of the food webs. Another example of research that I value and will continue to carry out is the effect of currently used pesticides on the health of fish and ocean creatures.
Another concern we have relates to the contaminants in traditional seafood for aboriginal communities … trying to figure out how much seafood is consumed by aboriginal communities, what types of seafood, and what pollutants are in the seafood.
And we’ll be looking at new and emerging issues like microplastics and what those little particles mean to the bottom of the food chain.
Q: Since your immune work with seals in the 1990s, what have we learned about PCBs and other contaminants and marine mammals?
When we look over recent decades, persistent organic pollutants, and some new-era compounds and emerging chemicals like pharmaceuticals, estrogen-like compounds, personal care products, all conspire to paint a picture whereby we have highly complex mixtures in our waterways and oceans. [We have] found that some accumulate in very high levels in seals and other long-lived species. The very pressing question is whether these complex mixtures of compounds are harming seabirds, aquatic wildlife and humans.
Q: In the past you’ve done a lot work with belugas and orcas. What are your research plans for them?
I’ve long used them to be canaries for the world’s oceans. I do continue to be concerned about killer whales in the Northwest Pacific, and their exposure to legacy compounds. But I have a broad mandate here to study many species. We will continue to let the marine mammals tell us a story about what chemicals they are exposed to and if they’re suffering as a consequence.
Q: The southern resident killer whale population off Washington/Vancouver has been declared endangered by both United States and Canada. What should be done to protect them, and what role will the aquarium have?
Three major threats are noise and disturbance, reduction of prey with the pressures on salmon populations and third, very high levels of toxic chemicals. We in Canada have been working on the science to characterize each threat, in a very scientific manner and will continue to do that at the aquarium.
These whales are very important to aboriginal people on both sides of the border. This single population generates about $1 million in economic spin-off in Canada alone from whale watching.
Q: The Vancouver Aquarium has stirred up some controversy by having belugas held there in captivity. Will this remain an issue in the future?
It’s not something on my radar; my job is to work as an ocean scientist. But their being held here is an important question, and many people debate the issue, and there many reasoned arguments on all sides of the debate. But it’s not an argument that I’m involved in. I’ll remain fixated on science.
Q: You’ve made a living of being out on the ocean studying seals, whales and salmon. Will you still do field work?
Absolutely, yes. There is the capacity [at the aquarium] with small vessels to do field work, and, more importantly, we will collaborate with other agencies and stakeholders.
Q: After more than a decade of research with the government what will happen to the research topics you left behind, and how do you feel about leaving them?
I had a marvelous time as a research scientist in Canada, with relatively free rein in carrying out research and attracting top students. I have very fond memories of many, many excellent, productive scientific teams. Through no fault of my own, that position came to an end. For me the Vancouver Aquarium fits … and will allow me to carry out the kind of research I did with Canadian government. But I do leave behind hundreds of very good friends and close collaborators and excellent members of the scientific community.
Q: Why do you think some Canadian research programs, specifically the contaminants research program, were axed? And can you comment on whether you think it had anything to do with oil and gas, tarsands development or similar motives?
I have no way of knowing what the government’s rationale was in cutting that or any programs. We were told it was a cost-cutting, and we were told the research would be transferred to the academic and nonprofit sectors…I can reflect on all sorts of experiences over the last two or three years, but it doesn’t serve me to whine or, rather, to continue whining. I have to look ahead.
Q: How can the aquarium fill the research gap caused by the government cuts?
The federal government was a large science organization, with extensive labs at our disposal, ships, small vessels, helicopters and lighthouses along the coast, lots of things that made it a spectacular place to do ocean science. The Vancouver Aquarium is a smaller science organization, but it’s growing and super energized.
The aquarium will not do everything for everyone and fill the gap, not even in the Northeast Pacific, but we will create a small center of excellence that will design its own research and collaborate with universities and those in the private sector who are interested in the same issues.
Q: What research are you most proud of at this point in your 30-year career?
I would say that I’m most proud of my professional relationship with these marine mammals. The sentinels – the marine mammals that have helped me understand the ocean, and offered blood samples or small biopsy so I can better understand humans' impact on the ocean. All of the research with the otters, beluga whales, killer whales...I’m so proud to be a colleague and collaborator with these creatures.
They’re the ones helping to tell me a story about what’s important to them, what their needs are in terms of ocean health and a clean food supply.
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