Quebec invests $2.1M to help endangered belugas in the St. Lawrence

Run by the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO), the five-year program involves developing a 3D simulation system to track how boats and whales move and interact in the waterway.

3D simulation program will track how boats and whales move and interact in the waterway

Marine biologist Robert Michaud says he expects a significant increase in marine traffic in the river, which will have an impact on the whale population. (Submitted by Levon Drover)

The Quebec government has announced it will invest $2.1 million in a program that tracks the movements of marine animals and boats in the St. Lawrence, a decision it says could be a step toward saving the endangered beluga whale.

Run by the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO), the five-year program involves developing simulation technology to monitor how boats and whales move and interact in the waterway.

"The Quebec government is highly concerned about protecting the habitat of the St. Lawrence belugas," said Luc Blanchette, the minister of forests, fauna and parks, in a statement.

The simulation program "will allow us to learn more about this population that's in a precarious situation, and determine what steps we need to take to help in its recovery," Blanchette said.

Robert Michaud, a marine biologist and director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals in Tadoussac, said he would like to see the province focus more on marine protection, and less on development.

That's what the government's investment is all about, he said.

"There is something that we're doing wrong," Michaud told CBC Homerun's Shawn Apel. "One thing that we might do right is to better evaluate our development projects."

'Video game' of the St. Lawrence

The simulation model is being developed by Dr. Clément Chion, the scientific program manager at UQO, who will be trying to make it easier for scientists to collect 3D data from the St. Lawrence Estuary.

"Just imagine a big video game where you portray the St. Lawrence Estuary in three dimensions," Michaud said.

Robert Michaud said the belugas' survival could depend on how humans cohabit with them. (Radio-Canada)

In the simulation, scientists will be able to visualize noise footprints created by boats that will eventually encounter the belugas, who live in the St. Lawrence Estuary area.

"This model helps us to evaluate the relative impact of different scenarios," Michaud said.

From there, he says, the government will have the tools to make decisions that would limit or concentrate traffic in certain areas and ultimately reduce the impact on the whale populations.

Michaud said he expects the province's maritime strategy — a plan unveiled in 2015 to develop the maritime economy in Quebec — would increase traffic in the St. Lawrence, which will have an impact on the whales.

"The idea of the simulation model is to put that data at our service to make the best prediction and make the best evaluation before increasing traffic in the St. Lawrence."

Beluga population declining

According to Michaud, the belugas have a long history of interacting with humans.

A few years ago, however, it came to light that the beluga population was in a slow decline.

"Now, we have a population of less than 1,000 belugas," he said.

Pollution, human disturbances, the degradation of their habitat, and a lack of food are among the factors contributing to their decline, Fisheries and Oceans Canada says.

The belugas are also at risk of being hit by boats, and can sometimes become entangled in fishing nets.

With files from CBC Montreal's Homerun