Toxic algae might be responsible for the deaths of more than two dozen humpback and fin whales have washed up along the shores of British Columbia and Alaska since May.
The algae, which is said to resemble a “brown ribbon”, has been linked to climate change, and it is producing significant levels of the neurotoxin known as domoic acid.
According to the director of Dr. Andrew Trites, of the UBC Marine Mammal Research Unit, “We can rule a few things out by having inspected their bodies to rule out things such as starvation, any signs of disease, any signs of having been hit by ships or caught by fishing gear. We have to begin, in essence, doing ecological detective work.”
A patch of warm water in the Pacific that is commonly referred to as “the blob” has been called the culprit for the algae. The acid that the algae produces is most likely consumed by krill, which is a common food for both humpback and fin whales.
Trites says, “I think the most likely explanation for the deaths of these whales is that they were out at a big smorgasbord, a big party, and some of them got food poisoning. They ate too much, and it caused their deaths.”
According to Trites, the event should serve as a wake-up-call.
“The fact that three times more whales have died this year than we’ve seen in past years is a sign that something major has happened,” he said.
While the neurotoxin has not been officially confirmed by the scientists to be the cause of the deaths of the whales, researchers at Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) agree with the theory presented by Trites.
The ONC associate director for science, Richard Dewey, said “A whale’s at the top of the food chain, and so in fact they are an accumulator of toxins.”
Samples from some of the deceased humpback whales are being tested by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in order to determine the exact cause of their deaths.