“It could be the final blow to the beluga”

Researchers are calling for a moratorium on development projects in the Saguenay region

Posted September 2, 2020 at 6:00 AM

Philippe Mercury

LNG Quebec. BlackRock Metal Processing Plant. Arianne Phosphate Mine. Grand River Ironsands Iron Recycling Plant. Although they are all at different stages of their development, there are several industrial projects on the table in the Saguenay region. However, researchers fear they may be on the back of the beluga, an endangered species.

While waiting for more information on the best ways to mitigate the impact of these projects on the iconic marine mammal, a group of scientists is recommending a moratorium on projects likely to lead to an increase in maritime traffic in the Saguenay Fjord. .

“We are not against development,” said Jérôme Dupras, co-researcher on the project and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Ecological Economics at the University of Quebec in Outaouais. What we are saying is that once we understand what the real support capacity of the environment is and how the beluga evolves, we can, for example, define a maximum number of boats, the speeds at which they can travel. areas to avoid, etc. ”

We had already raised the yellow flag by calling for caution on the increase in maritime transport. But with the new results, it is no longer a yellow flag: it is the red that is being hoisted. You really have to have the time to move on.

Jérôme Dupras, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Ecological Economics at the University of Quebec in Outaouais

Led by Clément Chion, a professor at the University of Quebec in Outaouais, the group had received $ 2.1 million funding from the Quebec government for five years to study the impact of maritime traffic on the beluga. The alarm call launched Wednesday stems from the first part of the work, showing that the beluga is more vulnerable than expected to ships circulating in the Saguenay Fjord. The next step is to see if mitigation measures can make it possible to reconcile the region’s economic development and the survival of the beluga.

Noise, triple threat

It is estimated that about 1,000 belugas visit the St. Lawrence Estuary, a number that is declining at about 1% per year. The species is listed as endangered in Quebec and in danger of extinction in Canada, its most precarious pre-extinction status. “The population is declining and there is an increase in neonatal mortality, which is harming the recovery potential of the species,” explained Robert Michaud, one of the authors of the report released Wednesday and director. scientist from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM).

Maritime shipping is one of the three causes of the beluga’s decline, along with the lack of prey and pollution. The problem with ships is that they make underwater noise that hits the beluga on three fronts. First, as the animal locates its prey through echolocation, the sound waves confuse the tracks and make it difficult to find food. The beluga is also a “social” animal that communicates with fellow creatures through calls spanning a wide variety of frequencies. The waves of boats disrupt this communication, especially between mothers and their babies. Noise ultimately causes stress in animals, which disrupts many functions.

Belugas love the Saguenay

The group’s preparatory work shows that the beluga visits the Saguenay much more often than previously thought. Previous studies have shown that between 2 and 5% of belugas go there.

Yes, if we take a picture of the Saguenay, we find about 5% of the belugas there. But it is a Polaroid and they are never the same individuals. In fact, it has been shown that 50% of the belugas visit the fjord, including 67% of the females.

Jérôme Dupras, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Ecological Economics at the University of Quebec in Outaouais

Researchers actually believe that beluga whales use the Saguenay as a “natural acoustic sanctuary” to protect themselves from boat noise. It is estimated that the four industrial projects under discussion in the region could almost triple the number of ship passes in the Saguenay Fjord, from 447 to 1,267 per year. Modeling calculations show that this would cause events where a beluga is close enough to a boat to jump by 450%, causing the noise level to exceed 120 decibels at low frequencies.

“If nothing is done to compensate for this, this could be the final blow to the beluga,” says Jérôme Dupras.

His colleague, Robert Michaud, points out that while it takes decades to tackle the fish stocks that belugas feed on and tackle pollution problems, noise reduction can quickly bring benefits to the beluga.

“There is danger in the house for the beluga,” he said. And if we want to act quickly, only one of the three threats above it can induce some kind of relaxation, and that’s noise cancellation. ”

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