Endangered St. Lawrence belugas show early signs of baby boom

Marine scientists studying the critically endangered St. Lawrence belugas are seeing large numbers of newborn calves so far this summer.

But mysterious deaths still worry scientists

Researchers are cautiously optimistic about regular sightings of newborn beluga calves in the St. Lawrence River. (Darryl Dick/The Canadian Press)

Marine scientists studying the critically endangered St. Lawrence belugas have a rare bit of good news to share this summer.

During their past month-and a-half on the water, they have been seeing newborn calves everyday, and in large numbers.

"We were surprised to see so many calves so far," said Robert Michaud, scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), based in Tadoussac, Que.

While the researchers don't yet have specific numbers, Michaud said their preliminary observations come as a relief. The St. Lawrence beluga population has been dropping for more than a decade; there are only an estimated 900 of them left.

Marine biologist Robert Michaud saw six beluga calves in one day this week, among the most he's seen in his 35-year career. (GREMM)

"We are [often] bombarded with bad news. But there is not only bad news. There is some good news this year and we are happy to see that," Michaud said. 

'"The main message so far: it looks like a good year for belugas."

Only three days ago, Michaud was thrilled to spot six calves in a day in the Saint-Fabien and Saint-Simon area, 240 kilometres northwest of Quebec City. It is probably one of the highest numbers he has ever seen in his 35 years of studying them, he said.

Calves continue to die

But 2017 will also likely be another year in what Michaud calls the "dark series" of calf mortality — a trend of finding newborn beluga carcasses on Quebec shorelines.

The phenomenon is still as mysterious as it was when it started in 2010, when the number of dead calves found each year jumped from an average of one to six.

So far this year, the group has identified three.

Three dead calves have been identified so far this summer in the St. Lawrence, which means the trend toward higher mortality rates is continuing. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"We are at the early stage in the calving season, and we already have three newborns that washed up. So, it's a pretty high number," Michaud said.

"This increased mortality in newborns is adding new pressure on this population. It's the recovery potential that is going away when you are losing newborns like that."

Give the whales some space

Given the potential baby boom, and the struggle to regenerate the beluga population, researchers are emphasizing the importance for humans to keep their distance from the whales.

Federal regulations require all watercraft, including kayaks, to stay 400 meters away from belugas and slowly move back if the whales approach.

These rules are in effect inside the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, in the Saguenay Fjord and the St. Lawrence River that surrounds it, where beluga whales abound.

Following these regulations is even more important during calving season, Michaud said.

"You are more than likely to encounter beluga whales, but we ask people to maintain some distance from these whales," he said.

"It's their calving period and it's a very critical period for this population."