Monash University research into heavy metal contaminant levels in dolphins from Port Phillip Bay and the Gippsland Lakes has revealed high mercury levels may be a contributing factor to dolphin deaths.
Researchers from the School of Biological Sciences have confirmed levels of mercury found in the dolphins were within a range considered to cause negative health and mental effects and were higher than mercury levels found in populations around the world.
Supervisory researcher Dr Ross Thompson said the mercury concentrations in 20 live and eight dolphins which died after becoming stranded, collected over the last two years, were measured by Honours student Alissa Monk. Levels in the dead dolphins averaged 3.45 milligrams of mercury per kilogram of tissue compared to 1.32 mg/kg in living dolphins.
"Mercury levels detected are sufficient to cause significant health impacts and were comparable to those found in areas of the world that are considered highly polluted, including the Mediterranean Sea," Dr Thompson said.
Mercury has been shown in previous national studies to bioaccumulate in dolphins, but this is the first study to find particularly high levels in stranded animals in coastal Victoria. Bioaccumulation is the food chain process whereby smaller fish containing mercury are eaten by larger mercury contaminated fish, which are then consumed by dolphins, who can consume up to ten kilograms of fish a day. Mercury levels found in fish were considered low (<0.5 mg/kg) and were fine for human consumption.
"Dolphins may be becoming stranded as a direct consequence of mercury contamination which damages their neurological system. They become potentially confused and disorientated, and strand themselves. Even the apparently healthy dolphins had high levels of mercury which put them at risk of future health complications," Dr Thompson said.
Dr Thompson said mercury is likely to have come from the sediments of the Bay and researchers are concerned that dredging activities may increase the dolphins' exposure.
"Sediment contains mercury, which is likely to have originated from historical gold mining sites where mercury was used in gold processing, as well as from other industrial sources. Over time, the mercury has been washed down through waterways, including the Yarra River, and come to rest on the bottom of the Bay," Dr Thompson said.
Dr Thompson said it was critical that further studies were done throughout the bay dredging process to ensure any further decline in dolphin health could be identified and managed.
The School of Biological Sciences research was supported by Coastcare, West Gippsland CMA, the Gippsland Lakes Board and the Dolphin Research Institute.
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