The federal government has followed through on its promise to strengthen protection for beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Estuary by bumping up its status on the endangered species list.

Belugas in the region have gone from "threatened" to "endangered" according to Robert Michaud, a beluga expert and coordinator with the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network.

The status change was officially announced Wednesday and the new designation means Ottawa will have to create a recovery plan in collaboration with scientists, industry representatives, local fishing organizations, Indigenous groups and other affected groups.

Michaud says such a plan already exists.

"Concretely, this will not change the level of protection for the beluga, which, as an endangered species, was already well protected by existing laws," he said.

However, Michaud believes that politically, the recognition that the beluga's situation is deteriorating is a step in the right direction.

An estimated 10,000 beluga whales existed in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf prior to 1885, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In 2012, that number was down to 900.

A slow decline in the population has been observed since the early 2000s due to a number of factors including pollution, reduced food resources, disturbance by humans and habitat degradation.

The public now has 30 days to comment on the new designation.

With files from the CBC's Benjamin Shingler and Radio-Canada's Joane Bérubé