The St. Lawrence River in 2016: Raw sewage, PCBs — and more biodiversity

The St. Lawrence River has made headlines this year for what was found in it, and dumped in it.

The year started with Montreal's "Flushgate" still in the headlines, ends with signs of increased biodiveristy

In order to survive, this baby beluga whale, found washed up on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in Rivière-du-Loup in July, needed to find a lactating female whale that could nurse it. (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals)

The St. Lawrence River made the headlines this year for what was found in it, and what was dumped in it.

At the beginning of the year Flushgate — the sewage dump that spewed almost five billion litres of untreated wastewater into the St. Lawrence River the previous November — was still top-of-mind for Montrealers.

Four months after the dump, Mayor Denis Coderre was still seeking to reassure Montrealers that the water in the St. Lawrence was safe, saying "the facts say that there was almost no impact."

But more raw sewage was on its way.

Flushgate floodgate

Last month, Quebec City followed Montreal's lead and dumped millions of litres of wastewater into the St. Lawrence River as part of maintenance work on its sewage treatment system.

Mayor Régis Labeaume said it was necessary in order to avoid a breakdown in the treatment system that he said would be "10 times worse."

Alexandre Joly, scientific research director for the non-profit environmental group Fondation Rivières, said no amount of raw sewage dumping should be taken lightly.

In Nov. 2015, Montreal began its massive sewage dump, dumping almost five billion litres of untreated wastewater into the St. Lawrence over the space of a week in order to repair parts of its sewage system. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

"Last year's 'Flushgate' in Montreal paved the way for other cities to say, 'Well, it's not as bad as in Montreal, so it's okay for us to do it," said Joly.

"There's always an impact. It's [about] the level of impact that we accept as a society."

At least sewage isn't... PCBs

Earlier this month, the Hudson's Bay Company was fined $765,000 for illegally releasing PCBs into the St. Lawrence River.

Frédéric Hivon from the Public Prosecution Service of Canada told CBC the incident happened in May 2011, when electric transformers on the roof of the company's store in downtown Montreal broke and 146 kilograms of PCBs spilled out.

Workers cleaning up the spill used a water hose to wash the hazardous material into a drain, of which an estimated 48 kilograms ended up in the river.

Fishy invaders

In May, two fishermen in Quebec's Lanaudière region caught an invasive grass carp in the St. Lawrence River.

Quebec's Forests, Wildlife and Parks Ministry will spend $1.7 million over three years to try and detect the Asian carp in the St. Lawrence River and educate commercial fishermen. (The Nature of Things/CBC)
Quebec's Forests, Wildlife and Parks Ministry confirmed that the fishermen's catch was a one-metre-long female grass carp, one of four Asian carp species.

The grass carp is native to east Asia, but has been used in North America as a way to manage aquatic vegetation and is viewed by some as a culinary delicacy.

In recent years, the species has occasionally ended up in North American waters after being brought over alive to be sold in fish markets.

The grass carp has a reputation for depleting large areas of vegetation, creating problems for smaller fish that use plants to evade predators,

The ministry will spend $1.7 million over three years to try and detect the Asian carp in the river and educate commercial fishermen.

The orphaned beluga 

An orphaned baby beluga whale was found on the shore of the St. Lawrence River in July.

It was only a few hours old and needed to find an adoptive mother right away if it was to survive.

A spokesperson for the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals said what happened to the mother is a mystery.

Chemical pollution, noise and stress caused by increased maritime traffic in the area and less ice forming in the St. Lawrence Estuary during the winter were all floated as possible reasons for the orphaned female.

The baby was introduced to a couple of beluga groups that GREMM believed had lactating females among them. She was last seen swimming among members of one of the groups.

At the time, the spokesperson said it could be awhile before the orphaned whale's fate was known, if they ever find out at all.

Members of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals tend to a baby beluga whale that found itself stranded in Rivière-du-Loup. (GREMM)

Noisy river

Researchers began to notice a rise in beluga deaths and researchers theorized beluga calves' soft calls may be drowned out by the noise from ships, ferries and boats in the Saguenay and St. Lawrence rivers. 

An increasing number of whale carcasses that turn up in Quebec belong to pregnant females, mothers and newborn calves. Experts in the area called the situation an "epidemic."

"In fact, the noise of boat motors in certain areas of the St. Lawrence is so loud that, if humans were exposed to the same sound levels, they would be required to wear safety equipment," Peter Scheifele, a professor at the University of Connecticut, observed back in 1998.

Narwhals usually live in the Arctic, but one was spotted in St. Lawrence River near Trois-Pistoles, Que. this summer. (Paul Nicklen/WWF)

On the bright side, biodiversity

A Quebec marine biologist said the summer of 2016 was "exceptional" when it comes to the diversity of species spotted in the St. Lawrence River. 

Lyne Morissette said the most noticeable new visitors were whales.

Since last year, North Atlantic right whales, the most endangered species of whale in the world, have been making appearances from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence all the way to Tadoussac.

Also this summer, a narwhal was spotted as well as more and more capelin, which are small fish that serve an important role in the ecosystem, serving as a popular food source for whales, seals, cod and sea birds. 

Whale close encounter in Tadoussac

6 years ago
Duration 0:37
Whale watchers in Tadoussac got way closer to the sea mammal than they expected.

There's no way to know for sure why the fish and whales are migrating to the St. Lawrence, but Morissette said the area is a great habitat for right whales.

"Maybe they found something here that is suitable for them. Less threats, more food, we don't know for sure," she said.

One explanation could be the warmer water — the water temperature is about two degrees higher than it was a decade ago, she said.