Three industrial port development projects on the banks of the Saguenay River are in their final stages or have completed the government assessment process. At the same time, the wheels are in motion for other port development projects along the St. Lawrence, which could also increase maritime traffic in the Estuary. Once completed, shipping traffic stemming from these projects has the potential for major impacts on St. Lawrence belugas. In response, citizens and organizations are taking action. Whales Onlineis tracking these developments, from a “beluga’s” point of view. Discover potentially disruptive elements, reactions, and resources for staying informed.

St. Lawrence belugas are considered endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. In order to provide a guideline for beluga protection measures, the population’s critical habitat – i.e. places essential for the species’ survival – has been identified. This habitat includes part of the St. Lawrence Estuary and sections of the Saguenay River.

Both toothed whales and belugas depend on sound for orientation. They use echolocation, meaning they emit and receive ultrasound to orient themselves and to identify obstacles and prey. Their sense of hearing is therefore critical for their survival.

Disturbance by watercraft and habitat degradation due to noise generated by shipping traffic are two of the main threats faced by St. Lawrence belugas. Development projects will each increase the number of vessels operating on the Saguenay. These ships then continue their course toward the Atlantic via the Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Throughout the world, shipping traffic is on the rise, as is total tonnage, i.e. the weight of goods being transported by sea. The St. Lawrence is no exception.

Over the next few years, development projects at the ports of Québec City, Trois-Rivières, Contrecœur and Montréal will also contribute to the uptick in shipping traffic passing through critical St. Lawrence beluga habitat.

At the current time, the cumulative effect of noise on St. Lawrence belugas is not well understood. But the scientific community agrees: it does have an impact on marine mammals.Operating ships emit loud and prolonged sounds that have the potential to:

  • Disturb the beluga in its behaviour
  • Mask beluga communications or make them more difficult
  • Mask echolocation clicks, affecting the animals’ ability to orient themselves or hunt effectively
  • Temporarily or permanently impair the beluga’s hearing
  • Cause chronic stress, which can harm the beluga’s health

It is in this context that Fisheries and Oceans Canada produced a “Science Response” document as part of the environmental assessment for marine terminal projects on the Saguenay. Researchers from Fisheries and Oceans Canada argue that “elevated risks [for belugas] cannot be ruled out given the current state of the declining population for which noise has been identified as a risk factor.” They later add, “Increasing anthropogenic pressure in this part of the habitat may further jeopardize the population’s recovery.”

Researchers indicate that the proposed development projects in the Saguenay will be incompatible with the objectives of the recovery plan adopted in 2012 and recently proposed measures to reduce the effect of stressors of human origin. You can read Whales Online’s complete summary of this document.

New research projects

What is the exposure level of belugas to noise in the Saguenay and St. Lawrence and what effect does it have on them? To answer these questions and many others, researchers are developing a simulator of marine mammal movements and shipping traffic as well as sound propagation in critical beluga habitat. Conducted by Université du Québec en Outaouais and GREMM in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, preliminary results of this research project are expected later this year. The simulator will become a decision-making tool for use in evaluating various maritime development scenarios in the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence Estuary. The goal: to identify measures for reducing belugas’ cumulative exposure to noise. “Until we have access to the results, patience and caution are key to avoid significant harm to St. Lawrence belugas,” points out Robert Michaud, scientific director of the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals. “The Saguenay is still relatively quiet; it’s a sort of natural acoustic refuge. If all these projects were to launch before we had a chance to assess the importance and function of this acoustic sanctuary in cumulative exposure, we would risk losing an effective protection strategy.”

This simulator image shows belugas in quiet areas. In red, animals that are subject to sounds exceeding 110 decibels. Black cubes are ships.

In the Estuary and Gulf, as part of Canada’s Oceans Protection Plan, another complementary simulation project is evaluating interactions between underwater noise and whales in the St. Lawrence. The results of this project should also facilitate informed decision-making with regard to development projects.

Two field projects are collecting acoustic data to better understand the behavioural and physiological responses of belugas when exposed to underwater noise and how this noise might be masking their communication or echolocation. Collected data will be used as input for the two simulators.

To study underwater noise exposure at an individual level, data archivers called D-tags are placed on the animals. In 2018, GREMM’s team, in collaboration with Véronique Lesage of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, managed to install 12, for a total of 53 hours of monitoring. The archiver records not only sounds emitted by the beluga, but also ambient sounds as well as data on water depth and temperature, speed, acceleration and orientation of the beluga, etc. The team also records a considerable amount of other data (distance and angle of the animal from the research vessel, number and types of other vessels relative to the research vessel, behaviour of the animal, etc.) while attempting to maintain eye contact with the beluga. Data will notably be used to document behavioural changes during and after noise exposure and the consequences thereof.

Additionally, Ocean Wise researcher Valeria Vergara is continuing her project, which combines drone-based video recording with underwater acoustic recording to study contact calls in belugas. Contact calls are believed to be used to maintain group cohesion or the bond between mother and calf. In newborns, these calls have the same frequencies as the sounds emitted by watercraft engines, which makes them all the more likely to be masked.

BlackRock Metals

BlackRock Metals is aiming to develop a mine near Chibougamau to extract vanadium, titanium and magnetite and process them in a plant that would be built at the existing wharf in Grande-Anse, near the city of Saguenay. The concentrate would then be exported by ship. In May 2019, BlackRock Metals received the green light from the Government of Quebec to commence construction of its processing plant in La Baie as well as the mine.

Number of ships expected: 20 to 25 per year

Expected commissioning: 2020

Arianne Phosphate

Last October, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna, authorizedthe Saguenay Port Authority to continue its efforts to develop a marine terminal on the north shore of the Saguenay in Sainte-Rose-du-Nord. This authorization is contingent on conditions and mitigation measures to be applied throughout construction. The project is linked to the development of the Arianne Phosphate mine in Lac à Paul.

Number of ships expected: minimum scenario: 1 to 2 vessels a week, maximum scenario: 2 to 3 vessels a week, for a total of approx. 50-150 vessels per year

Expected commissioning: Unknown

Énergie Saguenay – GNL Québec

This project includes the construction of a pipeline to transport natural gas, mostly shale gas from Alberta, to a future liquefied natural gas (LNG) liquefaction plant in La Baie. LNG would then be exported by ship. The proposed pipeline route passes through wildlife habitats that are critical to endangered species such as the woodland caribou and wolverine.

Number of ships expected: 3 to 4 vessels per week or 6 to 8 under the maximum scenario, i.e. approx. 160-230 per year

Expected commissioning: 2025

These various projects are raising fears among citizen groups as well as organizations dedicated to nature protection and promotion. However, it was really the Énergie Saguenay project that set fire to the powder keg.

On November 2, 2018, citizens and environmental protection organizations joined forces to form “Coalition Fjord” and pool their efforts to mobilize individuals concerned by the situation. Beyond belugas, it is the entire ecosystem that Coalition Fjord is aiming to protect.

In early January 2019, environmental groups, lawyers and citizens requested that the governments of Quebec and Canada conduct an environmental assessment of the project as a single whole, rather than evaluating the plant and the gas pipeline separately, arguing that the two projects are mutually dependent. The different groups also maintain that a separate assessment neglects to take greenhouse gases produced during natural gas extraction into consideration. On May 8, citizen and environmental groups even called on the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to consider the potential impacts of project-related shipping traffic. Since then, the CEAA has “undertaken a review of the scope of current environmental assessments,” reported Le Devoir on May 23. The public may submit comments on the summary of the impact assessment for the GNL Québec project through June 17.

On June 3, 2019, over 150 Quebec scientists signed and published an open letter (in French) in Le Devoir requesting the Quebec and Canadian governments not to support the GNL Québec project. The same day, GNL Québec replied with a counter-argument on its website (in French). On June 15, a demonstration is organized in Tadoussac to put pressure on the governments.

On September 10, 2019, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) is publishing a video to answer the many questions that are being asked about industrial port projects being developed along the Saguenay. “I’m particularly concerned about belugas,” remarks from the outset GREMM scientific director and beluga specialist Robert Michaud. The video is in French, but subtitles are available by clicking on the cc button.

The belugas of the St. Lawrence represent an endangered population. Among the threats they face, noise pollution is at the top of the list. Belugas depend on sound to orient themselves, hunt, communicate and socialize. And in order to be able to make use of these sounds, they must be in a relatively quiet environment.

Throughout St. Lawrence beluga habitat, marine traffic is on the rise, as are noise levels and the duration of exposure to such noise. But some sectors remain relatively unaffected by merchant shipping. Such sectors include the Saguenay Fjord and the south shore of the Estuary (Cacouna / Rivière-du-Loup / Kamouraska area). They form “acoustic refuges”, which are relatively quiet places most of the time. “These shelters are believed to be of particular importance for beluga health,” explains Michaud. To validate this hypothesis, which is shared by a number of scientists, the GREMM team is collaborating with researchers from the Université du Québec en Outaouais, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks. The results of their research should be able to guide how the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay are developed in an effort to reduce beluga noise exposure.

Until the results are available, Robert Michaud calls for patience and caution. “Losing these shelters means risking irreparable impact on this small, fragile population,” he worries. 

Arianne Phosphate and marine terminal in Sainte-Rose-du-Nord

Canada:Marine Terminal Project on the North Shore of the Saguenay:Preliminary Environmental Assessment Report

Quebec:Commissioning and operation of apatite mine project in Lac-à-Paul, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean Region(in French)

Énergie Saguenay – LNG and marine terminal in La Baie

Canada: Énergie Saguenay Project

Quebec: Forthcoming

Énergie Saguenay created a table to follow the process of the environmental assessments. You can consult it here.

BlackRock Metals and dockside plant in Grande-Anse

Canada: BlackRock mining project

Quebec: Planned processing plant for converting iron ore concentrate into pig iron and ferrovanadiumà Saguenay

 

Ressources

Reports and documents of interest

On Whales Online 

The project in the medias

Throughout St. Lawrence beluga habitat, marine traffic is on the rise, as are noise levels and the duration of exposure to such noise. But some sectors remain relatively unaffected by merchant shipping. Such sectors include the Saguenay Fjord and the south shore of the Estuary (Cacouna / Rivière-du-Loup / Kamouraska area). They form “acoustic refuges”, which are relatively quiet places most of the time. “These shelters are believed to be of particular importance for beluga health,” explains Michaud. To validate this hypothesis, which is shared by a number of scientists, the GREMM team is collaborating with researchers from the Université du Québec en Outaouais, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Quebec Ministry of Forests, Wildlife and Parks. The results of their research should be able to guide how the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay are developed in an effort to reduce beluga noise exposure.

Until the results are available, Robert Michaud calls for patience and caution. “Losing these shelters means risking irreparable impact on this small, fragile population,” he worries. 

Hot Topics - 24/5/2019

Marie-Ève Muller

Marie-Ève Muller is responsible for GREMM's communications. As Editor-in-Chief for Whales Online, she devours research and has an insatiable thirst for the stories of scientists and observers. Drawing from her background in literature and journalism, Marie-Ève strives to put the fragile reality of cetaceans into words and images.

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