Are living belugas as contaminated as dead belugas?

Everything we know so far about the contamination and health of St.Laurent belugas was obtained from the examination of stranded animals. One might ask whether these carcasses are representative of the population as a whole. Are the bodies of dead belugas more contaminated than those of belugas still swimming in the river?

To go through the looking glass


  • Biopsy of a beluga whale
  • Photo credit : © GREMM

Since 1994, a biopsy program has been underway. Blubber samples obtained from a representative number of living, photo-identified individuals will enable scientists to study the level of contaminants in live belugas and compare it to that of stranded animals.

In short

The first results show that, indeed, living belugas are also heavily contaminated. However, there are differences between dead and live animals, particularly in which chemicals are more abundant. The levels of these chemicals in live animals appear to be highly variable. These differences may originate from distinct metabolic processes in the target tissues (superficial as opposed to deep blubber). A biopsy allows us to obtain a sample from the superficial layer of blubber. It is therefore difficult to interpret biopsy results.

Project collaborators

Pierre Béland SLNIE, Robert Michaud, GREMM and SLNIE, Derek Muir, National Water Research Institute et Ross Norstrom, Environment Canada


Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada, World Wildlife Fund Canada, Parks Canada, Ministère de l’Environnement et de la Faune du Québec, Fondation de la Faune du Québec and Croisières AML Cruises.

Scientific papers

Béland, P. 1996. The beluga whales of the St. Lawrence River. Scientific American May 1996: 74-81.

Béland, P., S. DeGuise, C. Girard, A. Lagacé, D. Martineau, R. Michaud, D. C. G. Muir, R. J. Norstrom, É. Pelletier, S. Ray et L. R. Shugart. 1993. Toxic compounds and health and reproductive effects in St.Lawrence beluga whales. J. Great Lakes Res. 19(4): 766-775.

Béland, P., S. DeGuise et R. Plante. 1992. Toxicologie et pathologie des mammifères marins du St-Laurent. Rapport pour le Fonds pour la toxicologie faunique du Fonds mondial pour la nature, mai 1992.

Jarman, W. M., R. J. Norstrom, D. C. G. Muir, B. Rosenberg, M. Simon et R. W. Baird. 1996. Levels of organochlorine compounds, including PCDDS and PCDFS, in the blubber of cetaceans from the west coast of North America. Marine Pollution Bulletin 32(5): 426-436.

Martineau D., K. Lemberger, A. Dallaire, P. Labelle, T. P. Lipscomb, P. Michel, I. Mikaelian. 2002. Cancer in wildlife, a case study: beluga from the St. Lawrence estuary, Québec, Canada. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110(3): 1-7.

Martineau, D., S. DeGuise, M. Fournier, L. Shugart, C. Girard, A. Lagacé et P. Béland. 1994. Pathology and toxicology of beluga whales from the St. Lawrence Estuary, Quebec, Canada. Past, present and future. Sci. Total Environ. 154: 201-115.

Muir, D. C. G., C. A. Ford, B. Rosenberg, R. J. Norstrom, M. Simon et P. Béland. 1996. Persistent organochlorines in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the St. Lawrence River estuary. I. Concentrations and patterns of specific PCBs, chlorinated pesticides and polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxines and -dibenzofurans. Environmental Pollution 93 (2): 219-234.

Muir, D. C. G., C. A. Ford, R. E. A. Stewart, T. G. Smith, R. F. Addison, M. E. Zinck et P. Béland. 1990. Organochlorine contaminants in belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, from Canadian waters. Can. Bull. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 224: 165-190.

Muir, D. C. G., K. Koczanski, R. Rosenberg et P. Béland. 1996. Persistent organochlorines in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the St. Lawrence River estuary. II. Temporal trends, 1982-1994. Environmental Pollution 93 (2): 235-245.

Norstrom, R. J., D. C. G. Muir, C. A. Ford, M. Simon, C. R. Macdonald et P. Béland. 1992. Indications of P450 monooxygenase activities in beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) and narwhal (Monodon monoceros) from patterns of PCB’ PCDD and PCDF accumulation. Marine Environmental Research 34: 267-272.