“Why do you wish to stop whaling”, Pai (Chief Medical Officer for the Faroe Islands) says to me. He looks down at me like a school teacher at a naughty student. He’s the leading researcher of toxicity in whales, and has been a major influence in reducing whale consumption in the Faroe Islands.
I shift uneasily in my seat. “Well”, I reply slowly, “to many people outside the Faroes, what happens here with slaughtering of whales is appalling. And if it continues, this country will pay a heavy price.”
There’s a long pause as Pai considers me. “I see”, he says finally. “In fact I will not argue with you on the right or wrong of whaling. But I do see many health problems associated with whale consumption. I do think it would be best ff this country stopped its whaling. Or cut it drastically at the very least. But only because it has such disastrous affects on our health.”
Pai goes on to explain how the Faroe Islands have become the unwitting recipient of toxins dumped by other nations. But the route these toxins have travelled to reach here is most curious.
Now this is actually a little bit complicated, so please bear with me. Firstly, and over many decades, we’ve been dumping chemicals, via many means, into waterways. Of particular interest to us here is a group called Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and these include Aldrin, Chlordane, Dielerin, Endrin, HCH, Heptachlor, DDT and PCBs. All nasty little beasts that we thought we were rid of.
At the same time we’ve also been carelessly dumping various plastics into our waters. These include PVC, PP, PE, HDPE, Polyester and styrene. Through photodegradation and the action of water, these gradually break down into tiny particles. Again we thought we were rid of these plastics as well.
Now here is the rub, and this will be news to many of you. The POPs we dumped earlier are highly attracted to the plastics. In fact they are millions of times more attracted to the plastics than they are to water. So with time, our little plastic particles gradually accumulate a toxic coating of POPs. Which is all well and good if they were left alone in the oceans. The trouble is, they are not left alone. Some of the naughty wildlife out there, starting with tiny zooplankton, start consuming toxic plastics.
Of course zooplankton are down the bottom of the food chain. These get eaten by things like myctophids. And there is something interesting that happens here. Between the zooplankton and Myctophids there is a massive increase in toxicity. This phenomenon is called bio-magnification. As you go up each layer in the food chain, there is typically a seven-fold increase in toxicity levels.
If you follow this food chain up, you eventually get to the apex predators such as shark, whale, dolphin and tuna. Unsurprisingly, they all show increasing levels of toxins. Also the older a fish gets, the higher the levels grow. So a big old whale or great white shark has alarmingly high levels of POPs. It seems the pollutants have no inclination of leaving the food chain once they enter it. Little of it is shat out the anus of the animals – Instead it just accumulates inside their system, until they are consumed by something else further up the food chain.
These chemicals are so high in Atlantic Pilot whales for example that a recent US report suggests the maximum volume of whale meat that should be consumed in a year is 1 kg for an average weight male! Needless to say, the average Faroese eats well in excess of this 1kg.
Given the Faroese consume so much whale, what are the consequences for them? Well according to Pai, they suffer the highest levels of childhood behavioural and learning disorders of anywhere in the world. It is gradually turning them into a race of people with slightly lower intelligence and a grumpy disposition. There are many other consequences, none of them positive. But for now lets stick to the learning issues.
It seems that western dumping of plastics and nasty chemicals into the oceans may ultimately save the whales from being harpooned or slaughtered on the beaches. I pose this to Pai and a frown crosses his brow.
“This is not just a problem for the Faroese” he says indignantly. “It is happening in all fish now. Even the Atlantic cod is building up high levels of POPs. In the future, mankind may be forced to stop eating all high order fish unless we wish to become a race of dimwits.”
My mind wanders at how Pai would know of a word like dimwit. Somehow it is an insult without being too insulting. A nation of retards. Now that is offensive. A nation of dimwits…anyway, I digress.
The point Pai was making is that the whales are bad in terms of toxicity, but that these POPs are gradually building in most fish species around the globe.
“What about the Japanese”, I offer. “They eat tons of bluefin, yellowfin, whale and dolphin. They’ll all be turning into retards.”
He offers me a small smile. “Well of course bluefin and yellowfin are amongst the worst for POPs – Especially northern bluefin tuna. Long term Japan will have many problems if they continue to consume high levels of those meats.”
The challenge we face is massive however. There are now millions of tons of plastics and POPs all through our waters. Roughly 1/3 is spread right throughout the oceans, 1/3 in low concentrations in the Northern hemisphere (like the Mediterranean and North Sea), and 1/3 concentrated in the 5 Gyres (commonly referred to as plastic dumps). When you consider the particles are down to a few micron in size…well I think we’re just buggered…and in the future, mankind will pay a heavy price for our stupidity.
Where to start? ban plastics in your city…stop buying “one-use” plastics (like PET bottles). Stop using chemicals as much as you can…clean up your beaches…and next time you meet your neighbour, smack them in the face, and tell them that’s for stuffing our waterways. Of course your neighbour is equally as right to give you a lash, as us westerners are all part of the problem. hmmmm
Someone from the American Chemistry Council, give them a smack in the face and tell them that’s for foc