Subject: Info: FEATURE-Beluga whales endanger (fwd)

Michael Williamson (
Thu, 19 Sep 1996 08:27:57 -0400 (EDT)

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Date: Thu, 19 Sep 96 03:39:00 GMT 
Subject: FEATURE-Beluga whales endanger

FEATURE-Beluga whales endangered in St. Lawrence River

    By Patrick White
     TADOUSSAC, Quebec (Reuter) - The Beluga whale, the huge,
white mammal with the enigmatic smile, is in danger of
disappearing from the St. Lawrence River because of pollution.
     "For us, it is without question a species on the road to
disappearing," said Nathalie Boudreau, research assistant at
the Groupe de Recherche et d'Education sur les Mammiferes Marins
(GREMM), an independent research group. Their numbers devastated
by hunting, wanton slaughter and contamination of large areas of
their habitat, only 500 Belugas still travel the lower third of
the 1,200-mile St. Lawrence River, which stretches from Lake
Erie to the Atlantic Ocean.
     A century ago, there were an estimated 5,000 in its frigid
waters. Now Boudreau and other researchers worry that although
the Beluga population in the St. Lawrence stabilized in the
1980s it is no longer growing despite international efforts to
protect the whale and clean up its polluted environment.
     "What is not normal is that even though there are Beluga
births each year, the population is not growing," she said.
     The great scourge of the St. Lawrence Belugas is pollution
from industries and towns nestled along the great river.
Industries dump chemicals and toxins into the river, while many
towns and villages, lacking sewage treatment facilities, use the
St. Lawrence as a vast septic tank.
     The lower St. Lawrence takes in pollution from the Great
Lakes, but Quebec cannot put all the blame on other Canadian
provinces and its American neighbors. Fully 80 percent of
Quebec's 7.3 million population lives near the great river.
     Researchers believe most of the Belugas suffer from cancers
affecting intestines, stomach, uterus, blood vessels, brain or
lungs. Belugas must also cope with weakened immune systems and
fertility problems. Suspected carcinogens and heavy metals are
found in significant concentrations in their bodies, as are
     "The Beluga is a pollution indicator for the St. Lawrence.
It accumulates heavy metals at the bottom of the river by eating
shrimp, eels and fish," Boudreau said.
     Last year, a team of officials from the World Wildlife
Federation, Canada's department of Fisheries and Oceans and
local ecologists established a plan to revive the Beluga
population, but early results provide little hope that their
numbers can be boosted in the St. Lawrence.
     The governments of Quebec and Canada are teaming up to
create a National Sea Park near Tadoussac, about 140 miles
northwest of Quebec City. In 1993, Environment Canada created
"St. Lawrence-Vision 2000," a development plan that would give
Quebec residents better access to a cleaner river by 1998. The
plan targets polluters and calls for a gradual reduction of
industrial waste dumped into the river.
     "Toxic substances have diminished in the St. Lawrence and
there has been a clear improvement in the quality of its
water," Environment Canada spokesman Alain Petit said. "As a
result we think the Belugas are ingesting fewer contaminants."
     Beluga is the Russian word for "white." An average Beluga
whale weighs between 1,750 and 2,650 pounds, measures 15 feet
and lives 30 years. Most of the world's 55,000 Belugas are found
in the waters around the Arctic Circle near Alaska, northern
Canada, Scandinavia and Russia. Belugas have lived in the St.
Lawrence for 12,000 years, attracted by its cold water.
     Whale-watching is both a boon and a bane for the St.
Lawrence Beluga,  known in local circles as the "ambassador of
Tadoussac." A village of 860 people founded in 1600, Tadoussac
is host to nearly 500,000 visitors each year. Most come to see
the whales, including the Blue whale and the Sperm whale. They
also delight in spotting friendly-looking Belugas, although
Canadian law prohibits specific sightseeing of the species.
     While tourist interest helps motivate local residents to
protect the whales, the proliferation of tourist boats in the
area is further endangering the fragile Beluga population.
Boudreau's research group wants a moratorium on cruises and
boating in Tadoussac Bay and parts of the St. Lawrence,
something Tadoussac's mayor, Thomas Mahe, does not oppose.
     "I am in favor of a moratorium. We are having trouble in
managing all this growth in tourism," Mahe said.