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Hunting

Numbers of belugas were severely depleted in the 1900s for commercial and recreational hunting for their flesh, hide and oils. Despite a protections that were finally granted in 1979, there has been no recovery in population.

Pollution

Eighty per cent of Quebec’s population lives along the shores, and billions of litres of wastewater and industrial contaminants have been dumped into the St. Lawrence River.
 

These contaminants are absorbed by marine life in the river and then eaten by belugas further downstream. Studies have shown that the St. Lawrence belugas are one of the world’s most contaminated marine mammals.

For decades, autopsies of belugas showed that many were dying of cancer. As people grew concerned over the quality of the drinking water from the St. Lawrence, chemicals like PAHs and PCBs were regulated in the 1970s.

Meanwhile, other chemicals like PBDE’s (flame retardants found in many household and industrial products) in the water have increased exponentially. PBDEs are known to interfere with the hormone system in mammals which could be impacting beluga whale reproduction and causing birth defects.

In the last few years, an alarmingly high number of baby belugas and mothers have died, and scientists are trying to determine the exact cause.

Habitat Loss

The St. Lawrence River is an increasingly crowded place mainly during the summer months when females are giving birth. Shipping, ferries, recreational vehicles alongside with a growing fleet "beluga watching" boats are present around these mammals at their most vulnerable time.

Belugas are highly social animals that rely on sound to communicate, navigate and find food — and the St. Lawrence is increasingly noisy. A beluga calf’s call is much quieter than its parents and scientists speculate that the young are getting separated from their family and are having trouble being heard over the noise.

SCENE FROM THE FILM: Listen to the baby beluga's call

In 1998, Parks Canada established the Saguenay-St. Lawrence marine park to protect whale habitat. Ships are now being routed around calving areas, ferries have reduced underwater noise, and the plan to build the Energy East pipeline has been shelved.

Climate change

A warming environment appears to be having an impact on the St. Lawrence beluga, a whale more commonly found in the Arctic. In the winter, there’s far less ice cover which is essential for hunting and protection from storms and predators like killer whales. Increased water temperatures have caused toxic algae blooms in the summer which may be reducing the amount of food that the whales need to survive.

A recent report speculated that the high number of baby beluga deaths in 2010 and 2012 was related to the record warm water temperatures in those years.

In 2012, Fisheries and Oceans Canada proposed a plan to save the species from extinction. 

Food Sources

All species depend on reliable and abundant food sources to survive and thrive. Very little is known about the precise diet of the St. Lawrence belugas; the most comprehensive studies of what they eat date back to the 1940s, when, because of widespread hunting, there were many beluga carcasses available to scientists. Among the discoveries made at that time were that belugas eat capelin, sandlance, cod and squid.

Modern research is showing that they likely eat sandlance, squid, capelin, herring and tomcod, but it’s not known how that prey availability varies, or the relative importance of each of the prey species. Food availability can change depending on the season – for example, spring herring in the estuary may be an important food source, especially for pregnant females. Researchers at the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park are doing hydroacoustic surveys of the area to determine possible food sources and whether they are changing. “We’re looking to see what is in the fridge for the belugas,” according to Park ecologist Nadia Ménard.

Watch Call of the Baby Beluga.

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