Mary Ellen Abberger, a 4th year student at Trent University in the Bachelor of Environmental Sciences and Studies Program from Toronto,  is studying the Southern Resident Killer Whales, which live off the coast of British Columbia and Washington.


Unfortunately, the whale population is in severe decline.

There are only 74 whales remaining. 

The species is threatened by:

  • Declining prey populations;
  • Noise disturbances from boats; and
  • Contamination from various toxins, including Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs).

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) are harmful substances that can be found in older consumer & electrical products made before 1977 such as fluorescent light ballasts and transformer oils.

PCBs are human-made, toxic chemicals that are persistent in our environment.

Although we’ve stopped producing them, they have remained persistent, present and harmful in our environment for decades …. and are still causing a BIG problem, such as being a leading cause of the decline in Southern Resident Killer Whales.

There is limited public knowledge about the severity of the threat that PCB’s pose to the Southern Resident Killer Whales.  

Mary Ellen is conducting research with two Trent University professors Dr. Hickie & Dr. Rutherford to try and identify the knowledge gap that exists between scientific and public knowledge.  

The research project consists of two parts.

  1. A Population Viability Analysis (PVA) of the Southern Resident Killer Whale population, with a focus on PCB contamination.  Mary Ellen is working with the PVA to try and enable a more in depth portrayal of the impacts of PCBs on the Southern Resident Killer Whale population.
  2. A Media Analysis, in which Mary Ellen is evaluating news articles from various sources that have been published within a 1 year time frame. She is identifying what has been communicated to the public about the science behind the Southern Resident Killer Whale population’s decline.


These two aspects can be combined to identify the specific knowledge gap between 1) Existing scientific information and 2) What knowledge is communicated to the public about the decline in whale population.  

So far, Mary Ellen has found that most news articles don’t report on the threat of PCB’s to the whales as often ,or in the same level of detail, as the other threats .

Mary Ellen is anticipating and observing that PCB’s are a very complex threat- and that the public does not fully understand the role these chemicals are playing in the decline of the whales.  

Mary Ellen hopes that the results from this project can contribute to further understanding. She believes the public should become better educated on the story of the  Southern Resident Killer Whales — and most importantly, what we can do to help- such as support and action put in place for them to recover. 


The Southern Resident Killer Whale population decline is an important case study, reminding us that the actions we take now can negatively impact our environment for generations.  Our actions now can have long-term detrimental affects. 

It is partially up to the scientific community to ensure that this kind of information is properly communicated to the public – so that we can become more aware of the impacts we have on nature.

“Trent is a school with a great sense of community. I have truly felt at home at Trent and have loved my time here. The School of the Environment has amazing professors who conduct research in a variety of fascinating fields, they have a lot to offer to the students. There are so many ways to get involved within and outside of the academic world at Trent, through extra curricular activities, clubs and groups, and jobs on campus. I have learned so much over these last four years, and am excited to see where the knowledge I have gathered at Trent will bring me.”