St. Lawrence Beluga Project
Since the mid-1980s, a consortium of private and university research laboratories has been pursuing a research and monitoring program on belugas and the St. Lawrence ecosystem.
To better understand belugas and their habitat through the scientific study of their behaviour and monitoring of their state of health, sharing this knowledge with the general public and coming to the aid of belugas that have gone astray or become stranded. These actions are essential in order to define and implement concrete actions for the recovery of the beluga and the conservation of the St. Lawrence / Great Lakes ecosystem.
Family album: a census through photo-identification
Monitoring of individuals that have been photo-ID’d is the cornerstone of our program. Every summer since 1985, we spend hundreds of hours at sea with belugas in order to compile observation records. We identify the links between belugas’ social structure and their use of habitats, determine how this organization influences their exposure to anthropogenic threats, and identify the factors that are limiting the recovery of their population.
Mortality Monitoring Program
With the support of a vast network of volunteers and public participation, the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network maintains a beluga mortality monitoring program. A team is dispatched to the field to examine and take samples from all carcasses. Accessible carcasses that are in good condition are transported to the Université de Montréal’s faculty of veterinary medicine (FMV) in Saint-Hyacinthe for a comprehensive examination.
Health and Pathology
The carcasses received at the laboratory of pathology at the Université de Montréal’s faculty of veterinary medicine undergo a comprehensive and exhaustive examination in order to determine the cause of death and to detect any pathologies that might relate to beluga morbidity. This health and pathology program, which has existed for over 30 years, is the longest in the world for a marine mammal species.
Through a combination of genetic data and observation records of photo-ID’d individuals, we study the fundamental biological characteristics of the beluga population as well as the influence of genetic characteristics on individuals’ health, mortality and reproductive success.
Analysis of contaminants found in the tissues of St. Lawrence belugas is used to monitor the evolution of the quality of their ecosystem. This program has allowed researchers to detect significant declines of several persistent organic pollutants that had been banned in the 1970s. It has also allowed evidence to be gathered on new classes of industrial chemicals that have been introduced in the past few decades.
In small, isolated and at-risk populations, the survival and reproductive success of each individual can make a difference in a species’ recovery. Over the years, we have adopted a code of ethics and protocols to help stranded or trapped live belugas and lost beluga whales. While not all of our attempts lead to rescues, each provides us with valuable information and better tools to help the next beluga in distress.
Education and Awareness
The Whales On Line website and the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre (CIMM) in Tadoussac, both GREMM initiatives, are genuine references for the public and the media. These initiatives provide essential up-to-date data and information on belugas, notably with regard to scientific research, conservation initiatives, threats, observations, etc.
The St. Lawrence Beluga Project is coordinated by the GREMM. All of these projects are realized in close collaboration with researchers from the Maurice Lamontagne Institute of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and biologists of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park (Parks Canada — SÉPAQ).