The 'Killer' Truth About Marine Pollution and Whales

Posted Mon, 02/10/2020 - 13:35

During Whale Week (Feb. 10-14), NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is taking a closer look at the different pollutants affecting whales, and what OR&R and our partners are doing to help.

A black and white drawing of a whale swimming through fish netting.
A pen and ink print of a whale breaking through fish netting. Derelict fishing gear is a common form of marine debris that often traps marine life long after the gear is no longer in use. Even giant whales can get caught up in the debris. Illustration by Tom Crestodina. All rights reserved.

As the largest animals on the planet, it's no surprise that whales dominate their aquatic food chains. Few species could hope to challenge the bulk of these giant mammals, so what could possibly pose a threat to a whale? In a word, humans — in two, marine pollution. 

Whether it be oil spills, marine debris, and industrial pollutants such as PCBs, or a combination of pollutants impacting their food supply, marine pollution is a serious threat to whales and other marine mammals. When it comes to the overall impact of marine pollution on whales, there are a lot of unanswered questions. But through improving science and technologies, our understanding of how whales and other marine mammals interact with pollutants continues to grow. 

This week, we’ll be answering a few of those questions — like, does a killer whale instinctively know how to avoid spilled oil? Or can noise become a form of pollution when it disrupts life beneath the surface? Or what about what happens if a whale carcass washes up on shore? We’ll be looking at tools and techniques scientists use to answer these questions — tools such as acoustic monitoring and remote biopsies. We’ll also talk about ways to prevent marine pollution to keep whales and other animals safe from its impacts.

Stay tuned this week as we talk more about whales and marine pollution. You can also subscribe to our blog here to have updates delivered straight to your inbox