Marine animal health is affected by stressors including disease and man-made pollution. NIST assists NOAA primarily by evaluating marine-life exposure to man-made toxicants and by archiving specimens for retrospective analysis.
NIST provides NOAA the capacity to accurately assess exposure of marine animals to stressors and a mechanism for retrospective analysis of marine animal tissues. This work enhances NOAA's capability to manage marine animal populations. Federally protected marine species are impacted by many man-made and non man-made factors that can lead to declines in their populations. The information provided by NIST helps NOAA to make informed decisions about which stressors lead to the greatest harm, and whether these factors can be alleviated. Methods for assessing contaminants and disease are continually improving. The availability of banked samples from protected marine species allows for the ability to assess past levels of contamination, disease, and physiological markers of health. Management actions by NOAA based on information provided by NIST will help to conserve protected species for future generations.
NIST has leveraged its extensive experience in environmental measurements to provide its partners with information needed to assess marine animal health. The most recent effort provided reliable measurements of trace elements and organic pollutants in marine animal blood. Blood is being used more frequently in health studies for exposure assessment as it can be collected less invasively than can tissue biopsies. NIST has also developed methods for the determination of "pollutants of emerging concern," including brominated flame retardants and perfluorinated substances, that have only recently been recognized as potentially toxic to marine life. NIST assists NOAA by developing standardized collection protocols for samples to be used for the assessment of marine animal health. These protocols are being used for assessing the health of bottlenose dolphins, beluga whales, and loggerhead sea turtles. Recently, relationships of pollutant concentrations among various tissues of bottlenose dolphins and sea turtles have been examined to determine if non-lethally collected samples can be used for exposure assessment. Other studies have examined the physiological pathways leading to poor cardiac health in pygmy sperm whales and toxic mechanisms of perfluorinated compounds in northern fur seals and California sea lions.