Beluga still 'healthy source of nutrition' despite presence of microplastics

Microplastics are polluting waters around the world, and now a new study by a Vancouver environmental group has found them in beluga whales in the Northwest Territories.

Researchers with Ocean Wise studied the innards of seven beluga harvested near Tuktuyuktuk, N.W.T., between 2017 and 2018. They discovered an average of around 10 microplastics — plastic particles less than five millimeters in size — in each whale.

"What are the implications on my body when I eat it?" asked Billy Archie from Aklavik, N.W.T. He's been harvesting beluga in the Arctic ocean for more than 30 years. 

He and people in his community eat beluga, and he wonders what those microplastics could do to people who rely on traditional food to survive.

"Diet is always important to us up in this area where the cost of living is pretty high, so traditional food is very important," he said. "It's kind of scary."

"I would say they're still a healthy source of nutrition," assures Rhiannon Moore, the study's lead author, referring to eating beluga with microplastics in them. 

Submitted by Billy Archie

She likened eating baluga to eating fish, which she said also likely have microplastics in them.

James Pokiak from Tuktoyuktuk has been harvesting beluga for over half a century. While he said he isn't too concerned about the microplastics in belugas at this point, he things it's important to "get to the bottom" of what's causing the problem. 

"It's not just here," he said. "A lot of whales are harvested for a food source. It's world-wide, and especially in the Arctic."

Plastic 'going to stick around'

"What concerns me is that microplastics are being found this high up in the food chain but also in areas this remote," Moore said.

Moore said she's more concerned about the unknowns with this study, like what the long-term effects of eating microplastics could be to humans and marinelife.  

THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Ocean Wise, Valeria Vergara

She said she suspects we'll be seeing more microplastics in the ocean in the years to come.

"This is a legacy now that we're going to be leaving for many generations to come. Plastic is definitely going to stick around much longer than we are."

For Archie, he wants to know where the microplastics are coming from. 

"It couldn't be in the arctic ocean, population in the area's too small for any type of plastic pollution, where else could it be? " he said. 

"It's opening up a bunch of questions that I'm curious about now."