Aquatic Species at Risk - Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence Estuary population)

Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence Estuary population)

Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas)

SARA Status: Listed under Schedule 1 (June 2005)
COSEWIC Status: Threatened (May 2004)
Recovery Strategy: Published in 2012 (PDF format, 1,12 MB)

Region: Quebec

Quebec Region

Did you know?

The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale population is the southernmost beluga population. It is a relic of the last glaciation.

Description

The beluga whale, also named white whale, is a marine mammal well adapted to life in cold waters. It has a thick layer of blubber beneath the skin that serves as both an energy reserve and an efficient insulator. A rounded structure on the head, called a melon, is used for orientation and finding preys with echolocation.

Only the adult beluga whale is white; calves are born brown or dark grey and gradually pale to become totally white between six and eight years of age. An adult beluga whale can weigh up to 1,900 kg and grow to a length of 2.6 to 4.5 m.

Beluga whales can live for 75 years or more. Males reach sexual maturity at 12 to 14 years, while females become sexually mature from 8 to 14 years of age. About every three years, females give birth to one calf around July or August, after a gestation period of 14 and a half months.

The St. Lawrence beluga whale population is estimated at close to 1000 individuals.

Beluga Whale

Photo credit: W. Klenner

Habitat

Distribution of the Beluga Whale as described in the following paragraphs

Adapted from Michaud, R. 1993. Distribution estivale du béluga du St-Laurent : synthèse 1986-1992. Rapport technique canadien des sciences halieutiques et aquatiques 1906. 28p

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. Before 1885, there were as many as 10,000 belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary and Gulf. Today’s most recent estimates put the current population at close to 1000 individuals.

During the summer, the range of St. Lawrence beluga whales extends from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli to Rimouski in the Estuary and to Saint-Fulgence in the Saguenay River. During the winter, they prefer the St. Lawrence Gulf, where ice cover is less extensive.

Beluga whales travel in groups of 2 to 10 individuals, although much larger groups are occasionally observed. They feed on a variety of fish and invertebrates, using echolocation to find their prey. Belugas are very vocal animals; they can produce a cacophony of high-pitched whistles to low, repeated grunts. These vocalisations are behind their nickname: sea canaries.

Threats

Commercial whaling has depleted the population severely. Although whaling for belugas has been banned since 1979, there has been no noticeable recovery in the population.

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 to the recovery of the population. Beluga whales can also be the victim of ship strikes and become entangled in fishing gear.

Further Information

The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale population is listed as threatened and protected under the Species at Risk Act. A recovery strategy for this beluga whale has been developed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in collaboration with Parks Canada and several partners. St. Lawrence belugas are the subject of several scientific studies by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, including research on the impacts of contaminants on their health and reproduction. Inventories are carried out regularly since 1980 to estimate the population size and to increase our knowledge of areas of intensive use.

Awareness initiatives are ongoing through partner organizations with the support of the Saguenay – St. Lawrence Marine Park and the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM) who have been conducting outreach for several years to promote best practices for whale watching. This campaign is targeted at marine wildlife observation tour operators. Additionally, GREMM coordinates the actions of the Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network to implement measures to save animals in trouble in the waters of the St. Lawrence bordering the province of Quebec. You are invited to call 1-877-722-5346 toll free to alert the Network when a marine mammal is in trouble.

Scientific Information

Scientific name: Delphinapterus leucas
SARA Status: Listed under Schedule 1 (June 2005)
COSEWIC Status: Threatened (May 2004)