Whale-watching cruises will no longer be able to ply the waters of certain sectors of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. The cruise exemption zone covers 44% of the Marine Park’s territory, from Pointe au Bouleau in Baie-Sainte-Catherine to Gros Cap à l’Aigle in the Charlevoix region, as well as the area around Île aux Lièvres. This part of the Upper Estuary is frequented by St. Lawrence belugas during the summer. Minke whales and other marine mammal species are also seen here on occasion.
Catherine McKenna, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Canada and Minister responsible for overseeing Parks Canada, announced this new beluga protection measure on June 10 in a news release. “The causes of the beluga whale’s decline are many and are not limited to the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. Parks Canada is, however, in a position to take concrete action on one of the important causes identified by science: disturbance caused by human activities,” the statement read. Developed in partnership with the nine companies offering trips within the Marine Park, this measure is complementary to the one that prohibits targeting belugas in commercial whale-watching activities.
In addition to the noise created by the engines and the risk of ship strikes, the presence of boats may disturb belugas in their day-to-day activities (feeding, communication, socialization, rest, reproduction, parental care, etc.). By banning observation activities in this area, Parks Canada is aiming to reduce the sources of disturbance.
Robert Michaud, GREMM’s scientific director and beluga specialist, is pleased with the announcement: “For 2019, it will not represent a major change, as cruises venturing to these parts of the Estuary have been rare lately. But for the future, it’s a very significant gesture: we decide to limit the development of an activity in order to protect a species at risk.”
Recreational boaters will still be able to navigate in this area. However, they will have to respect regulations that stipulate that a distance of 400 metres from this species must be maintained at all times. In the Marine Park area, it is also forbidden to stop a boat within ½ nautical mile of a beluga.
In 2018, an acoustic sanctuary was announced in Baie Sainte-Marguerite in the Saguenay Fjord. This area is off limits to all users, regardless of what kind of watercraft they are operating. Baie Sainte-Marguerite is frequented by groups of female and young belugas that use this area to socialize and rest and where adult females care for their offspring.