HALIFAX — An ambitious plan in Nova Scotia to build North America's first coastal refuge for captive whales has reached a critical phase involving environmental testing — and one of the findings is concerning.
The U.S.-based group behind the Whale Sanctuary Project confirmed Wednesday it had received results from a key environmental assessment of the site near Port Hilford, N.S., where the plan is to build a 40-hectare enclosure for orcas and belugas retired from marine parks
"We have completed almost two and a half years of studies along this line," executive director Charles Vinick said in an interview Wednesday.
The testing focused on the impact of potentially toxic heavy metals left behind by gold mining that ended long ago. The concern was that the whales could be harmed by eating clams, mussels and rock crabs contaminated by arsenic and mercury in the submerged soil.
"We understood when we selected Port Hilford Bay as our location-of-choice for a whale sanctuary … that there were remnants of gold mine tailings on the 30 acres of sanctuary lands," the group said in a statement.
"This meant we needed to study soil and water samples to see what mitigation measures might be necessary regarding heavy metals — specifically mercury and arsenic — that are routinely found in those tailings."
The testing revealed that arsenic levels in the bay's rock crabs were above Nova Scotia's guidelines for human consumption.
"With the rock crabs we have to investigate further," Vinick said from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. "If they were consumed, would that be a problem for a marine mammal? There are no standards for whales. We're investigating with the best scientists we can find."
Vinick said his group is talking to toxicologists to determine whether there is any risk that the whales could ingest a level of arsenic that could be harmful.
Some studies, he said, have examined whales in the Arctic, where Indigenous people have been affected by eating whale meat contaminated by minerals like mercury and arsenic, which can occur naturally in the environment. Some of those studies have suggested the whales were not harmed by these contaminants.
"We have to dig further into this data and understand it better," Vinick said. "We have to be sure that we do not put any whales at risk."
As for the mussels in the area, they were deemed acceptable for human consumption. No clams were spotted in the bay, which is on Nova Scotia's rugged eastern shore, about 200 kilometres east of Halifax.
Previous studies of the bay were also encouraging. Laboratory analyses of the water detected no traces of any heavy metals or other contamination.
On the land, there were no concerning levels of mercury, but arsenic was found in an area around an old stamp mill that used machines to crush rock pulled from nearby mine shafts. As a result, any soil that might be disturbed by construction will be capped with a layer of soil, gravel or pavement, the group said.
"This is pretty good news all around," Vinick said. "We have not found any mercury above the levels that are concerning to the authorities."
The project, announced in February 2020, calls for construction of an enclosure that would include a ring of floating nets extending from the land. It would be as large as 50 football fields and about 300 times larger than the biggest captive whale tanks.
Organizers originally predicted the site would be ready to receive whales in 2022. But the COVID-19 pandemic, regulatory hurdles and environmental concerns slowed the project's progress.
Last year, Vinick said the refuge probably wouldn't open until sometime in 2024.
The $20-million project is relying on private donations. Another $2 million would be needed annually for operations.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press