Organochlorine contaminant concentrations and lipid profiles in eastern North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus)


Krahn, M.M., G.M. Ylitalo, D.G. Burrows, J. Calambokidis, S.E. Moore, M. Gosho, P. Gearin, P.D. Plesha, R.L. Brownell, Jr., S.A. Blokhin, K.L. Tilbury, T. Rowles and J.E. Stein. 2001. Organochlorine contaminant concentrations and lipid profiles in eastern North Pacific gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 3(1):19-29.


Organochlorine (OC) contaminant concentrations in tissues and lipid profiles in blubber are summarised for 101 gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) from the eastern North Pacific stock. Samples were obtained from presumably healthy gray whales during a 1994 subsistence hunt in the Russian Arctic (n=17) and also from biopsy sampling of live animals from the Washington coast (n=38). In addition, tissues were collected from two groups of animals (1988-1991, n=22; and 1999, n=24) that stranded along the west coast of the USA. These whales represent a diverse group of animals with respect to lipid stores, age, gender, health and reproductive status. Information about these biological factors is necessary before contaminant concentration data can be properly interpreted. Differences in blubber lipid levels and profiles were examined among these groups of whales. Significantly higher lipid levels were found in the blubber of subsistence animals that were sampled following summer feeding in the Bering and Chukchi Seas, compared to lipid levels in the biopsied and stranded animals. Lipid class profiles from blubber of presumably healthy gray whales (i.e. from subsistence and biopsy sampling) contained primarily triglycerides and were very different from those of stranded animals that showed lipid decomposition (increased proportions of free fatty acids, cholesterol and phospholipids). Furthermore, lipid class profiles were found to be a means of estimating the quality of a blubber sample from stranded cetaceans. An examination of how biological factors (e.g. gender, reproductive status, age) contribute to interpreting the differences found in contaminant concentrations among the gray whales was also undertaken. Although not statistically significant, higher (OC) concentrations were found in males compared to females, thus suggesting the tendency of the mother to shift her contaminant burden to her calf during gestation and lactation. Results also indicated that there was no significant increase in concentrations of contaminants in the blubber with increase in length (surrogate for age). Higher concentrations of OC contaminants were found in stranded juvenile gray whales, compared to juvenile subsistence whales, and were thought to result from retention of OCs in blubber of the stranded animals as lipid stores are mobilised for energy and total lipid levels decrease, rather than from a difference in diet or feeding areas. OC concentrations in various tissues (blubber, liver, kidney, muscle, brain) were similar on a lipid weight basis, except for brain, which had lower lipid-adjusted OCs because the blood-brain barrier limits contaminant transfer.


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