Life history and social structure as drivers of variance in persistent organic pollutant levels and stable isotopes in Hawaiian false killer whales


False killer whales are long-lived, slow to mature, apex predators, and therefore susceptible to bioaccumulation of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Hawaiian waters are home to three distinct populations: pelagic; Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) insular; and main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) insular. Following a precipitous decline over recent decades, the MHI population was listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act in 2012. This study assesses the risk of POP exposure to these populations by examining pollutant concentrations and ratios from blubber samples (n = 56) related to life history characteristics and MHI social clusters. Samples were analyzed for PCBs, DDTs, PBDES, and some organochlorine pesticides. Skin samples (n = 52) were analyzed for stable isotopes δ13C and δ15N to gain insight into MHI false killer whale foraging ecology. Pollutant levels were similar among populations, although MHI whales had a significantly higher mean ratio of DDTs/PCBs than NWHI whales. The ∑PCB concentrations of 28 MHI individuals (68%) sampled were equal to or greater than suggested thresholds for deleterious health effects in marine mammals. The highest POP values among our samples were found in four stranded MHI animals. Eight of 24 MHI adult females have not been documented to have given birth; whether they have yet to reproduce, are reproductive senescent, or are experiencing reproductive dysfunction related to high POP exposure is unknown. Juvenile/sub-adults had significantly higher concentrations of certain contaminants than those measured in adults, and may be at greater risk of negative health effects during development. Multivariate analyses, POP ratios, and stable isotope ratios indicate varying risk of POP exposure, foraging locations and potentially prey items among MHI social clusters. Our findings provide invaluable insight into the ongoing risk POPs pose to the MHI population’s viability, as well as consideration of risk for the NWHI and pelagic stocks.

Science of the Total Environment 733:138880

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