Bioaccumulative contaminants in marine mammals: uptake and effects




Noel, Marie

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This thesis provides insights into the transport and fate of contaminants of concern (polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and mercury (Hg)), as well as results on the impacts of these compounds on marine mammal health. Atmospheric transport is known to be a significant pathway for the delivery of contaminants to remote food webs. Air and rain samples were collected from one remote site on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia (BC), Canada, and from one near-urban site in the Strait of Georgia, BC. While global atmospheric dispersion was observed for the legacy PCBs, 40% of PBDEs detected in BC air appeared to be originating from trans-Pacific transport. It was estimated that 3kg of PCBs and 17kg of PBDEs were deposited every year in the Strait of Georgia. Once deposited, PCBs, PBDEs and Hg biomagnify up the food chain. Harbour seals are non-migratory and can be used to provide signals of local contaminant sources. They have been extensively used as indicators of PCB and PBDE food web contamination in the BC coastal environment. The collection of over 200 harbour seal fur samples from various locations around Vancouver Island, BC and Puget Sound, WA, USA helped us pinpoint three sites where Hg levels were significantly higher than our reference site, Bella Bella (Queen Charlotte Strait, Port Renfrew and central Puget Sound). A combination of anthropogenic sources and marine food web processes appeared to influence the delivery of methylmercury (MeHg) to the top of this coastal marine food chain. Our results also suggested that these Hg levels (1.6-46.9 µg/g) could be a concern for the health of these harbour seals. Genomic techniques were used to generate insights into the implications of contaminant exposure on the health of marine mammals inhabiting industrialized regions (harbour seals from the Northeastern Pacific and Northwestern Atlantic) and remote, supposedly pristine, environment (Arctic beluga whales). In harbour seal blubber, there were positive correlations between the mRNA levels of several genes, including estrogen receptor alpha (Esr1), thyroid hormone receptor alpha (Thra), and glucocorticoid receptor (Nr3c1), and PCB levels. In beluga blubber, aryl hydrocarbon receptor (Ahr) and cytochrome P450 (Cyp1a1) mRNA levels increased with PCBs, consistent with their role in toxicity.While PCB-related toxic responses were observed in both species, additional factors appeared to be affecting the expression of important genes in beluga. Our results suggested that a shift in beluga diet during periods of low sea ice extent, as evidenced by changes in δ13C isotope ratios, had a significant impact on mRNA levels coding for genes involved in growth, metabolism and development. The use of a dual study design to evaluate the long range versus local sources of contaminants highlighted the importance of trans-Pacific transport in the delivery of PBDEs to coastal BC and the occurrence of local Hg sources in this marine environment. However, consistent with previous studies, our results suggested that PCBs remain the top contaminant of concern for marine mammal health. We also raised questions about the potential exacerbation of toxic risks due to PCBs as a consequence of climate changes currently underway in the Arctic.



marine mammals, arctic, beluga, harbour seal, PCB, PBDE, mercury, bioaccumulation, gene expression