The federal government is taking steps to strengthen its protection of the vulnerable beluga population in the St. Lawrence Estuary.

Any human activities carried out in their habitat will require authorization before going ahead under a special decree, known as a Critical Habitat Order, signed by Federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo.

"Our government is taking action to protect species at risk and ensure our ecosystems remain healthy for current and future generations," Tootoo said in a statement.

The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale population is already listed as threatened and protected under the Species at Risk Act. 

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Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard Hunter Tootoo in the House of Commons earlier this year. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

'Laws are as good as we make them'

Robert Michaud, a beluga expert and co-ordinator Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network, praised the move.

But he said it's not yet clear how powerful the order will be in preventing development in beluga breeding grounds.

"It is a tool to force us to evaluate the cumulative impact of all of these projects," he said.

"The laws are as good as we make them. We have to test them, and the near future in the St. Lawrence is going to be a good benchmark to test this law, because there are several projects that are ongoing."

Last April, TransCanada announced it would not build a port for its proposed Energy East pipeline in Cacouna, Que., after months of protests from environmentalists concerned about a breeding ground for beluga whales.

GREENPEACE

Environmental activists held protests over the proposed port in Cacouna, Que. (Canadian Press/Greenpeace)

Other species receiving protection are the North Atlantic right whale, nooksack dace, northern madtom, and four populations of white sturgeon.

The new order focuses on specific geographic locations essential for the survival of those species, such as where they give birth or hatch, feed or raise their young.

The public will have 30 days to comment before the orders are enacted.

'Dramatic' population decline

Before 1885, there were as many as 10,000 belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In the 1980s, when regular monitoring began, the population was estimated to be around 1,000 individual whales.

A slow decline has been observed since the early 2000s, with a population size estimated at 900 beluga whales in 2012.

A number of factors seem to contribute to the decline of this species in the St. Lawrence, including pollution, reduced food resources, disturbance by humans and habitat degradation.

Beluga whales can also fall victim to ship strikes and become entangled in fishing gear.

Michaud said the situation is "pretty dramatic with the St. Lawrence beluga, and they need all the help they can get from us." 

With files from Kate McGillivray