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Ocean Pollution
Research Program


Ocean Pollution 

The Northeast Pacific Ocean conjures images of tidal pools, migrating salmon, pods of killer whales and awe-inspiring grizzly bears. It also provides food, jobs and security to the people of the region, through fishing, trade and ecotourism. However, the diverse ecosystems of this coastal region face tremendous pressures, as both local and global stressors threaten their health. Threats include urban and industrial effluents, runoff from forestry and agriculture, oil and gas shipping and exploration, plastics and debris, and climate change. Understanding the nature and extent of these threats provides a basis for policies and practices to protect ocean health for future generations.


Program Launch

The Ocean Pollution Research Program was established in 2014 as a major new Vancouver Aquarium research initiative. This program is conducting international-caliber scientific research on priority topics in ocean pollution. Its focus is to determine the sources and consequences of ocean pollution, communicating results to stakeholders and the public, and to provide guidance on solutions in the form of best practices, consumer choices and policies.

Dr. Peter S. Ross, an internationally recognized scientist with over 25 years of experience in marine pollution research in government and academia, is serving as the Program’s founding director and senior scientist.

Dr. Marie Noel is the program’s new Research Manager, overseeing safe and effective laboratory and field operations.

Mrs. Anahita Etemadifar is a Research Analyst, focusing on the lab-based forensic analysis of microplastics in environmental samples.

Kelsey Delisle is the new PollutionTracker Coordinator, overseeing the collection, analysis and interpretation of contaminant data from sediments and mussels collected from over 50 stations along the British Columbia coast.

The Ocean Pollution Research Program has the support of graduate students, post-doctoral fellows and biologists working on individual projects, as well as university, government and private sector collaborators. A new laboratory with state-of-the-art equipment for measuring the impacts of ocean pollutants has been established to enable in-house research.

Key Program Components

  • Microplastics in the ocean
  • Marine mammals as sentinels of ocean pollution
  • Clean seafood for coastal aboriginal communities
  • PollutionTracker, a new coast-wide monitoring initiative
  • Oil spill science

The Ocean Pollution Research Program builds on established knowledge, provides critical research capacity to Western Canada, and establishes British Columbia as a leader in this vitally-important field.

Pollution tracker

The Ocean Pollution Research Program Will:

  • Measure the health of invertebrates, fish and marine mammals in a newly-established Ocean Pollution Research Laboratory using instruments that quantify hormones, enzymes, proteins, antibodies, gene expression and immune endpoints;

  • Measure the levels of contaminants including microplastics, pesticides, industrial chemicals, flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, hydrocarbons and metals in invertebrates, fish, marine mammals and their habitat;

  • Design and conduct research projects that broaden our concepts of ocean health, conservation science, and understanding of human impacts;

  • Establish a network of collaborators to leverage capacity through existing ocean science research platforms in Canada and internationally (e.g. ships, field stations and specialized laboratories);

  • Facilitate solutions through creative research, stakeholder engagement programs, and expert working groups; and

  • Provide science content to educators, conservation managers and policy makers.

The Ocean Pollution Research Program works actively with other programs within the Vancouver Aquarium family. For example, it collaborates with the Marine Mammal Research Program on studies of the health of killer whales, with the Howe Sound Research Group on applied, local studies in a ‘living laboratory’, and with the Aquarium’s veterinary department and Marine Mammal Rescue Centre on factors affecting marine mammal health.

Contact Information

For questions or comments about the Ocean Pollution Research Program please email oceanpollution@vanaqua.org.

Selected Scientific Publications

Crichton E.M., Noël M., Gies E.A., Ross P.S. 2017. A novel, density-dependent and FTIR-compatible approach for the rapid extraction of microplastics from aquatic sediments. Analytical Methods. (In press). Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

Yunker, M., Macdonald, R.W., Ross, P.S., Johannessen, S.C., Dangerfield, N.D. 2016. Alkane and PAH provenance and potential bioavailability in coastal marine sediments subject to a gradient of anthropogenic sources in British Columbia, Canada. Organic Geochemistry (in press).

Brown, T.M., Ross, P.S. Reimer, K.J. 2016. Transplacental transfer of PCBs, PBDEs and organochlorine pesticides in ringed seals (Pusa hispida). Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 70: 20-27.

Noel, M., Jeffries, S., Lambourn, D., Telmer, K., Macdonald, R., Ross, P.S. 2016. Mercury accumulation in harbour seals from the Northeastern Pacific Ocean: The role of transplacental transfer, lactation, age and location. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 70: 56-66.

Alava, J.J., Ross, P.S., Gobas, F.A.P.C. 2016. Food web bioaccumulation model for resident killer whales from the northeastern Pacific Ocean as a tool for the derivation of PBDE-Sediment Quality Guidelines. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 70: 155-168.

Desforges, J.-P., M. Galbraith, Ross, P.S. 2015. Ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 69: 320-330.

Scheuhammer, A., Braune, B., Chan, H.M., Frouin, H., Krey, A., Letcher, R., Loseto, L., Noel, M., Ostertag, S., Ross, P.S., Wayland, M. 2015. Recent progress on our understanding of the biological effects of mercury in fish and wildlife in the Canadian Arctic. Science of the Total Environment 509-510: 91-103.

Ross, P.S., Morales-Caselles, C. 2015. Microplastics: Out of sight but not out of mind: Microplastics as a global pollutant. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 11: 721-722.

Noël, M., Loseto, L.L., Helbing, C.C., Veldhoen, N., Dangerfield, N.J., Ross, P.S., 2014. PCBs are associated with altered gene transcript profiles in arctic beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Environmental Science and Technology 48: 2942-2951.

Burd, B.J., Macdonald, T.A., Macdonald, R.W., Ross, P.S. 2014. Distribution and uptake of key PCB and PBDE congeners in benthic infauna relative to sediment organic enrichment. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology: 67: 310-334.
Desforges, J.-P.W., Galbraith, M., Dangerfield, N., Ross, P.S. 2014. Widespread distribution of microplastics in subsurface seawaters in the NE Pacific Ocean. Marine Pollution Bulletin 79: 94-99.

Desforges, J.P., Dangerfied, N.D., Shaw, P.D., Ross, P.S. 2014. Heightened biological uptake of PBDEs and PCBs near-source revealed by sediment and plankton profiles along a coastal gradient in British Columbia. Environmental Science and Technology 48: 6981-6988.

Grant, P.B.C., Woudneh, M.B., Ross, P.S. 2013. Pesticides in blood from spectacled caiman (Caiman crocodilus) downstream of banana plantations in Costa Rica. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32: 2576-2583.

Desforges, J.P.W., Ross, P.S., Dangerfield, N.J., Palace, V., Loseto, L.L. 2013. Vitamin A and E profiles as biomarkers of PCB exposure in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the western Canadian Arctic. Aquatic Toxicology 142-143: 317-328.

Frouin, H., Haulena, M., Akhurst, L.M.F., Raverty, S.A., Ross, P.S. 2013. Immune status and function in harbor seal pups during rehabilitation. Veterinary Immunology and Immunopathology 155: 98-109.

Ross,P.S., Kennedy,C., Shelley L.K., Tierney,K.B., Patterson,D.A., Fairchild,W.L., Macdonald,R.W. 2013. The trouble with salmon: Relating pollutant exposure to toxic effect in species with transformational life histories and lengthy migrations. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sciences 70: 1252-1264.

Ross,P.S., Noël,M., Lambourn,D.M., Dangerfield,N., Calambokidis,J.C., and Jeffries,S.J. 2013. Declining concentrations of PCBs, PBDEs, PCDEs and PCNs in harbor seals from the Salish Sea. Progress in Oceanography 115: 160-170.

Desforges,J.P.W., Ross,P.S., and Loseto,L.L. 2013. Metabolic transformation shapes polychlorinated biphenyl and polybrominated diphenyl ether patterns in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Environ.Toxicol.Chem. 32: 1132-1142.

Goulding,A.T., Shelley,L.K., Ross,P.S., and Kennedy,C.J. 2013. Reduction in swimming performance in juvenile rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) following sublethal exposure to pyrethroid pesticides. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part C 157: 280-286.

Shelley,L.K., Osachoff,H.L., van Aggelen,G.C., Ross,P.S., and Kennedy,C.J. 2013. Alteration of immune function endpoints and differential expression ofestrogen receptor isoforms in leukocytes from 17ß-estradiol exposed rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Gen.Comp.Endocrinol. 180: 24-32.

Alava,J.J., Ross,P.S., Lachmuth,C.L., Ford,J.K.B., Hickie,B.E., and Gobas,F.A.P.C. 2012. Habitat-based PCB environmental quality criteria for the protection of endangered killer whales (Orcinus orca). Environmental Science & Technology, 46: 12655-12663.

Christensen,J.R., Yunker,M.B., MacDuffee,M., and Ross,P.S. 2013. Plant consumption by grizzly bears reduces biomagnification of salmon-deroved PCBs, PBDEs and organochlorine pesticides. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 32: 995-1005.

Cullon,D.L., Dangerfield,N., Whiticar,M.J., and Ross,P.S. 2012. Biomagnification of polychlorinated biphenyls in a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) food web in the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia (Canada). Environ.Toxicol.Chem., 31: 2445-2455.

Alava,J.J., Lambourn,D.M., Olesiuk,P.F., Lance,M., Jeffries,S.J., Gobas,F.A.P.C., and Ross,P.S. 2012. PBDEs and PCBs in migrating steller sea lions (Eumatopias jubatus) in the Strait of Georgia, British Columbia, Canada. Chemosphere 88: 855-864.

Desforges,J.P.W., Ross,P.S., and Loseto,L.L. 2012. Transplacental transfer of polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in Arctic beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 31: 296-300.

Dinn,P.M., Johannessen,S.C., Ross,P.S., Macdonald,R.W., Whiticar,M.J., Lowe,C.J., and van Roodselaar,A. 2012. PBDE and PCB accumulation in benthos near marine wastewater outfalls: the role of sediment organic carbon. Environ.Pollut. 171: 241-248.

Frouin,H., Loseto,L.L., Stern,G.A., Haulena,M., and Ross,P.S. 2012. Mercury toxicity in beluga whale lymphocytes: limited effects of selenium protection. Aquat.Toxicol. 109: 185-193.

Harris,K.A., Nichol,L.M., and Ross,P.S. 2011. Hydrocarbon concentrations and patterns in free-ranging sea otters (Enhydra lutris) from British Columbia, Canada. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 30: 2184-2193.

Harris,K.A., Yunker,M.B., Dangerfield,N., and Ross,P.S. 2011. Sediment-associated aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons in coastal British Columbia, Canada: concentrations, composition, and associated risks to protected sea otters. Environ.Pollut. 159: 2665-2674.

Ross,P.S., Barlow,J., Jefferson,T.A., Hickie,B.E., Lee,T., MacFarquhar,C., Parsons,E.C.M., Riehl,K., Rose,N., Simpkins,M., Slooten,E., Tsai,J., Wang,J.Y., Wright,A., and Yang,S.-C. 2011. Ten guiding principles for the delineation of priority habitat for coastal cetaceans. Marine Policy 35: 483-488.

Alava,J.J., Salazar,S., Cruz,M., Jimenez-Uzcategui,G., Villegas-Amtmann,S., Paez-Rosas,D., Costa,A.N., Ross,P.S., Ikonomou,M.G., and Gobas,F. 2011. DDT strikes back: Galapagos sea lions face increasing health risks. Ambio DOI: 10.1007/s13280-011-0136-6.

Buckman,A.H., Veldhoen,N., Ellis,G., Ford,J.K.B., Helbing,C., and Ross,P.S. 2011. PCB-associated changes in mRNA expression in killer whales (Orcinus orca) from the NE Pacific Ocean. Environ. Sci. Technol. 45: 10194-10202.

Grant,P.B.C., Johannessen,S.C., Macdonald,R.W., Yunker,M.B., Sanborn,M., Dangerfield,N., Wright,C., and Ross,P.S. 2011. Environmental fractionation of PCBs and PBDEs during particle transport as recorded by sediments in coastal waters. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 30: 1522-1532.

Yunker,M.B., Lachmuth,C.L., Cretney,W.J., Fowler,B.R., Dangerfield,N., White,L., and Ross,P.S. 2011. Biota-sediment partitioning of aluminum smelter related PAHs and pulp mill related diterpenes by intertidal clams at Kitimat, British Columbia. Mar. Environ. Res. 72: 105-126

Mos,L., Cameron,M., Jeffries,S.J., Koop,B.F., and Ross,P.S. 2010. Risk-based analysis of PCB toxicity in harbor seals. Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management 6: 631-640.

Ross,P.S., Dungan,S.Z., Hung,S.K., Jefferson,T.A., MacFarquhar,C., Perrin,W.F., Riehl,K., Slooten,E., Wang,J.Y., White,B.N., Wursig,B., Yang,S.-C., and Reeves,R.R. 2010. Averting the Baiji syndrome: Characterising habitat for critically endangered dolphins in eastern Taiwan Strait. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 20: 685-694.

Alava,J.J., Ikonomou,M.G., Ross,P.S., Costa,D., Salazar,S., Aurioles-Gamboa,D., and Gobas,F.A.P.C. 2009. Polychlorinated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers in Galapagos sea lions (Zalophus wollebaeki). Environ.Toxicol.Chem. 28: 2271-2282.

Bennett,E.R., Ross,P.S., Huff,D., Alaee,M., and Letcher,R.J. 2009. Chlorinated and brominated organic contaminants and metabolites in the plasma and diet of a captive killer whale (Orcinus orca). Mar.Pollut.Bull. 58: 1078-1095.

Cullon,D.L., Yunker,M.B., Alleyne,C., Dangerfield,N.J., O'Neill,S., Whiticar,M.J., and Ross,P.S. 2009. Persistent organic pollutants in chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha): implications for resident killer whales of British Columbia and adjacent waters. Environ. Toxicol. Chem. 28: 148-161.

Noël,M., Barrett-Lennard,L.G., Guinet,C., Dangerfield,N., and Ross,P.S. 2009. Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in killer whales (Orcinus orca) from the Crozet Archipelago, southern Indian Ocean. Mar.Environ.Res. 68: 196-202.

Ross, P. S.; Couillard, C. M.; Ikonomou, M. G.; Johannessen, S. C.; Lebeuf, M.; Macdonald, R. W.; Tomy, G. T. 2009. Large and growing environmental reservoirs of Deca-BDE present an emerging health risk for fish and marine mammals. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 58: 7-10.

Hickie,B.E., Ross,P.S., Macdonald,R.W., and Ford,J.K.B. 2007. Killer whales (Orcinus orca) face protracted health risks associated with lifetime exposure to PCBs. Environmental Science and Technology 41: 6613-6619.

Ross,P.S. 2006. Fireproof killer whales: Flame retardant chemicals and the conservation imperative in the charismatic icon of British Columbia. Can.J.Fish.Aquat.Sci. 63: 224-234.

Ross,P.S. 2000. Marine mammals as sentinels in ecological risk assessment. HERA 6: 29-46.

Ross,P.S., Ellis,G.M., Ikonomou,M.G., Barrett-Lennard,L.G., and Addison,R.F. 2000. High PCB concentrations in free-ranging Pacific killer whales, Orcinus orca: effects of age, sex and dietary preference. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 40: 504-515.


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