The arrival of spring is synonymous with the return of marine mammals that come to take advantage of the rich waters of the St. Lawrence. As the ice loosens its grips on the shoreline, carcasses of seals and whales stranded in the course of the winter are often found by local citizens. It’s also commercial fishing season in the waters of the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf, and whales can get themselves ensnared in fishing gear. These observations are invaluable for science and conservation: the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network depends on cooperative local citizens and fishermen to promptly report any dead or struggling marine mammal by dialling 1-877-7baleine (1-877-722-5346).
Carcasses that Speak Volumes
Every carcass reported by locals represents a treasure of information. Network volunteers or partners head to the site of the stranding to collect data such as the species, sex, and size of the animal. These data are used to track marine mammal populations in the St. Lawrence.
A special sampling program for belugas was spearheaded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 1982. If the carcasses are fresh, they are sent to the Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (FMV, Saint-Hyacinthe) for a comprehensive necropsy. This examination helps determine most notably the cause of death, the pathologies involved and contamination levels of various toxins. “It’s a bit as if we’re shown a photo and then we’re able to write the narrative of the animal’s death”, sums up veterinarian Stéphane Lair, director of the St. Lawrence beluga health monitoring program. “It’s one of the longest monitoring programs for a population of marine mammals“, he adds. If transporting the carcass is unjustified due to its condition, the St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology (SLNIE) performs in situ sampling to determine at the very least the beluga’s age, sex and the concentrations of various contaminants in the animal’s fat. In 2015, out of 14 beluga carcasses, 7 were transported to the FMV and 7 were sampled on site.
Commercial Fishing Season
Every year since 2004, the Network handles between 3 and 20 incidents involving whales tangled in fishing gear across Quebec; some are already dead while others are still alive when they’re reported. When a whale in a precarious situation is reported quickly, an intervention can be attempted by specially-trained teams in an effort to rescue the animal and minimize the damage or loss of fishing gear.
A Network of Partners and Volunteers
The Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network exists thanks to the involvement of a dozen or so private and governmental organizations and some one hundred volunteers. “Every year, the Call Centre handles on average 400 reports concerning 200 cases of dead or struggling marine mammals. After 12 years, thanks to the collaboration of citizens and the mobilization of efficient field teams, we have a clearer picture of the various threats faced by the St. Lawrence and its inhabitants” explains Robert Michaud, Network coordinator. The Network is responsible for organizing, coordinating and implementing measures aimed at reducing accidental mortality of marine mammals, rescuing marine mammals in difficulty, and facilitating the acquisition of data from animals that have died in the waters of the St. Lawrence in Quebec.