Belugas Get a Break

Quebec rejects TransCanada’s application for Energy East exploratory drilling near Beluga habitat.

Susan MacVittie

Quebec rejects TransCanada’s application for Energy East exploratory drilling near Beluga habitat.

beluga whaleTransCanada Corporation’s $11-billion Energy East pipeline project has run into a stumbling block in Quebec over a possible threat to the endangered beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River estuary. In December, Quebec rejected TransCanada Pipeline’s application for an extension of its certificate of authorization to determine the feasibility of an oil export terminal at Cacouna, a key calving site for the belugas.

In September, a lawsuit was initiated by Nature Québec, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and conducted by the Quebec Environmental Law Centre. As a result, the Quebec Superior Court ordered the suspension of TransCanada’s exploratory drilling. The drilling permit had been previously authorized by Ottawa and the government of Quebec. The court ruled that Quebec’s Ministry of Sustainable Development, Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change authorized drilling without obtaining proper scientific analysis from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The environmental groups and citizens who launched the court action pointed out that TransCanada was unable to provide a satisfactory plan to the Government of Quebec after noise measurements, taken during the two series of exploratory drilling  in September, revealed that the maximum noise threshold had been exceeded by five times.

Groups such as the World Wildlife Fund say that the Canadian government has failed in its legal obligations to protect the St. Lawrence beluga under the Species At Risk Act and the permits should not have been issued. The victory comes at the same time as the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada changed the beluga’s designation from threatened to endangered.

The beluga whale is primarily an arctic species; the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga is at the southernmost limit of the range and is geographically isolated from other populations. During the winter, they prefer the St. Lawrence Gulf, where ice cover is less extensive. This small beluga population is one of the most studied in the world, and top scientists have contributed to a beluga recovery strategy that falls under Canada’s Species At Risk Act for over three decades. But despite these efforts, the St. Lawrence beluga population is still in decline. Once thought to number 10,000, it now stands at only 900 individuals.

Commercial whaling has depleted the population severely and, although whaling for belugas has been banned since 1979, there has been no noticeable recovery in the population. Researchers have reported that the number of dead beluga calves turning up on the shore has been unusually high since 2008, and do not know what is causing their mortality rate.

According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a number of factors seem to contribute to the lack of recovery of this species in the St. Lawrence. Among them, pollution, reduced food resources, disturbance by humans, and habitat degradation are considered to be the main threats. Beluga whales can also be the victim of ship strikes and become entangled in fishing gear. Biomagnification of toxic contaminants contained in the heavily-industrialized Great Lakes- St. Lawrence River system are also thought to affect the health of the belugas.

For the past 15 years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has been studying the possibility of creating a Marine Protected Area on a portion of the St. Lawrence estuary covering almost 6,000 km2, an area roughly the size of Prince Edward Island, stretching from Rivière-du-Loup to Cacouna and to L’Isle-Verte. This area, the first in Quebec, would aim to protect the habitat of the St. Lawrence beluga and the many other marine mammals that live there.

The groups and citizens that instituted the legal proceedings are now asking the Ministre du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques not to authorize any more drilling in the belugas’ habitat.

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Susan MacVittie is managing editor of the Watershed Sentinel.

PHOTO: Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons3.

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