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Whales - a food safety concern.

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Media Release The Hon. Dr Sharman Stone MP Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage Federal Member for Murray

25 July 2004


Whales - a food safety concern

The world's whale populations have suffered from being hunted almost to extinction in some species, but are now having to contend with a new challenge - marine pollution.

Dr Sharman Stone, Parliamentary Secretary for the Environment and Heritage said land based synthetic pollutants that find their way into our oceans are also a threat to marine ecosystems.

"The world's whale populations are still recovering from the over hunting of the 20th Century and now they are being contaminated by synthetic pollutants that begin as land based pollutants," Dr Stone said.

"The level of these pollutants in our oceans is impacting on current and future populations of whales and could cause food safety issues for human populations that consume whale meat.

"Synthetic pollutants are more soluble in fats than in water and because whales are at the top of the aquatic food chain, high concentrations of these pollutants end up in the blubber of whales."

According to marine scientist Dr Roger Payne1, these synthetic pollutants, often referred to collectively as Endocrine Disrupting Compounds (EDCs), take a considerable time to break down and remain stored in the fat tissue of animals. One group of these EDCs called polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs can affect the reproductive and immune systems and have been linked to foetal abnormalities.

In a 2003 briefing, Greenpeace stated that the bodies of Beluga whales found dead in the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada contained enough PCBs to be classified as toxic waste. [IWC 55 Berlin]

"A nursing whale will pass on her concentration of PCBs to her offspring through the fats of her milk, just as a human mother would pass on her level of PCBs to her young. The result is that the next generation begins life with the same concentration as the parent," Dr Stone said.

"Countries such as Japan and Norway that want to harvest whales for human consumption need to ensure their own populations are aware of food safety issues as they consume whale meat."

In 2002, a report2 found that the consumption of 0.15 grams of liver from a contaminated whale could result in toxicity in a 60 kg adult. In Norway in 2003, a health warning was issued to nursing mothers and pregnant women not to eat whale meat because of high toxicity levels.

In Japan, Minke whale meat harvested from whales from the North-West Pacific was considered a delicacy and being lower in fat, this red whale meat was considered safer, but there was still a risk. According to Dr Roger Payne1 because ocean and air currents flow towards the polar caps, the concentration of EDCs is higher in these waters and in the animals and plants that live in these regions.

Since 1996, the Australian government has introduced tougher penalties to stop illegal dumping of waste at sea and provided $74 million through the National Oceans Office to begin implementation of Australia's first comprehensive Oceans Policy to save our marine resources for future generations.

1Dr Roger Payne is founder and president of The Ocean Alliance - Whale Conservation Institute His comments were delivered in a lecture at the Maritime Museum of Sydney, 11/03/02. 2Sydney Morning Herald, 6 June 2002 based on a report in the New Scientist

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