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Disturbing increase in St. Lawrence beluga deaths

Researchers concerned by increase in beluga calf mortality
  Wikimedia Commons
Beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium
World’s southernmost beluga population under threat

"For now, we have no simple explanation to account for [this increase]. We don't know either what will be the impact of this mortality on the recovery of this population."

—Robert Michaud, GREMM scientific director

A disturbing increase in dead beluga whale calves washing up on the shores of the St. Lawrence River are concerning Quebec marine biologists. In 2012, researchers associated with Tadoussac-based marine mammal research group, the Groupe de recherche et d'éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM), discovered 17 dead beluga calves either drifting or washed a shore. According to GREMM's scientific director Robert Michaud, that’s a record.

For years, the population was considered to be stable but Michaud worries it may now be on the decline. Based on data dating to the early 1980s, fewer than three dead baby belugas washed up on shore each summer.” Since 2005, we've seen an increase in the mortality of calves [and] a new kind of mortality in females — a lot of females are dying in neonatality conditions, either just before, during or after giving birth," Michaud said. "For now, we have no simple explanation to account for [this increase]. We don't know either what will be the impact of this mortality on the recovery of this population," he added.

Researchers rely on data collected by Fisheries and Oceans Canada to monitor the beluga population via aerial surveys. However, cuts to the federal department's budget have left holes in the data. Before that, the surveys were conducted every three or four years, dating back to 1988. Researchers are still waiting for the analyses of data collected in 2009 and there have been no surveys since.

"When we are tracking a small endangered population, we want to be able to detect significant change in the population," Michaud said. "If something is going wrong with the population, we should be able to detect that rapidly. Not five, 10 years afterwards."

Due to the closure of the DFO ecotoxicology lab, researchers will not have access to data from a program monitoring the impact of contaminants on the health of belugas."What
will be the impact on the beluga?" he asks. "Unless we're able to monitor every component of the ecosystem, we won't be able to answer that."

Approximately 1,000 beluga whales reside in the St. Lawrence River near the mouth of
the Saguenay River. The world’s southernmost dwelling belugas are an isolated population, far from their nearest neighbours in northern Quebec. Nearly exterminated by the 1950s, they only became protected in the late 1970s.