U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, Vol. 29, No. 4, pp. 824–834, 2010.


Seasonal feeding behavior and high fidelity to feeding areas allow humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) to be used as biological indicators of regional contamination. Biopsy blubber samples from male individuals (n=67) were collected through SPLASH, a multinational research project, in eight North Pacific feeding grounds. Additional male samples (n=20) were collected from one North Atlantic feeding ground. Persistent organic pollutants were measured in the samples and used to assess contaminant distribution in the study areas. North Atlantic (Gulf of Maine) whales were more contaminated than North Pacific whales, showing the highest levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and chlordanes. The highest dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) levels were detected in whales feeding off southern California, USA. High-latitude regions were characterized by elevated levels of hexachlorocyclohexanes (HCHs) but generally nondetectable concentrations of PBDEs. Age was shown to have a positive relationship with ΣPCBs, ΣDDTs, Σchlordanes, and total percent lipid. Contaminant levels in humpback whales were comparable to other mysticetes and lower than those found in odontocete cetaceans and pinnipeds. Although these concentrations likely do not represent a significant conservation threat, levels in the Gulf of Maine and southern California may warrant further study.