Arctic Science Journeys
STORY: Around the turn of the century, several thousand beluga whales made their home in Canada's St. Lawrence River, which runs from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, only about 500 of the white whales are left there.
Whale hunters killed most of the belugas in the St. Lawrence River. Hunting was banned in 1979, but the whale population has not bounced back. That prompted the World Wildlife Fund and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans to establish a plan to help the beluga recover. Nathalie Zinger works for the World Wildlife Fund in Quebec. Zinger says the big problem for belugas today isn't hunting, but pollution.
"So that was the first strategy in the recovery plan was to say we have to reduce, within the St. Lawrence ecosystem, all those contaminants that we know are having an impact, or negative impact, on the belugas."
She says the body fat of belugas contain toxins such as PCBs, DDT, mercury and lead. The levels aren't enough to outright kill them, but they are high enough to degrade their general health and lower their reproduction. But Zinger says that even if the St. Lawrence gets cleaner, the problems with chemicals will linger. That's because female belugas will pass the toxins on to their calves for years to come.
"So it will take time for us to know how well they will be reacting, and how long it will take before their chemical load will be reduced. We have estimated that if we're lucky, if the population is recovering relatively fast, we should know within 12 years."
Canada's beluga recovery plan also calls for reducing disturbances caused by boats, and preventing environmental disasters such as oil spills. The plan is modeled after recovery efforts undertaken in the United States to help species such as the bald eagle. It's the first attempt in Canada specifically targeted at a marine mammal. For Arctic Science Journeys, this is Debra Damron.
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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