Waves of sound hurting belugas
Noise stress is only the most
recent threat facing St. Lawrence River belugas, whose
numbers have decreased through overfishing and disease.
Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Belugas in the St. Lawrence River seem to be having
a hard time hearing and communicating over the sound
of passing whale-watchers, ferries and freighters.
The noise overload could drive the belugas deaf, says
Robert Michaud, director of Group for Research and Education
on Marine Mammals, a non-profit organization based in
"It's like the fridge in your kitchen - the ear acclimatizes
itself to the hum, until you don't hear it any more.
You become deaf to it," Michaud explained.
"If a beluga is exposed to high levels of noise over
a prolonged period, it could develop temporary or prolonged
Concerned about the noise pollution, Fisheries and
Oceans Canada has begun a three-year study of the beluga
populations in the Saguenay River and lower St. Lawrence
Researchers on inflatable boats this summer are searching
for belugas in a 200-kilometre stretch of the St. Lawrence,
on either side of Tadoussac, as well as in the Saguenay.
Using harpoons and relatively harmless suction cups,
they tag the whales with time-depth recorders that measure,
minute by minute, the mammal's depth and speed and the
The recorders slip off the whales' skin after about
10 hours, and are then recovered by researchers.
Next year, hydrophones will be attached to monitor
noise levels at different depths, and the information
will be correlated with the mammals' behaviour patterns.
Noise stress is only the most recent threat facing
St. Lawrence belugas, an endangered species whose numbers
have decreased - through overfishing, disease, dwindling
food stocks, among other reasons - from about 5,000
in the early 1900s to 1,000 in recent years.
Known as "sea canaries" for their frequent whistles,
grunts, squawks, and clicking sounds, belugas use sounds
to navigate, hunt for food and communicate with other
Excessive traffic on the river could throw them off.
"It's like walking into a noisy bar," Fisheries and
Oceans Canada researcher Véronique Lesage explained.
"The belugas have to repeat themselves, or talk louder
to be heard.
"Or they just shut up."
Federal officials, marine researchers and conservationists
are working together to prevent belugas from abandoning
the St. Lawrence for quieter waters.
New rules this year in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine
Park prohibit whale-watchers from coming any closer
than 400 metres to belugas and other endangered species.
If a beluga suddenly surfaces next to a boat, the captain
has to back away, slowly.
Information about belugas, their habitat and current
research projects are available at the GREMM interpretation
centre in Tadoussac. The organization also runs a program
to adopt and name whales in the St. Lawrence (U2 and
Céline Dion are already taken).
The federal government introduced Species At Risk legislation
this year to help preserve their habitat. The legislation
would make it easier, for example, to limit the number
of boats plying waters that are home to belugas, Lesage
"If noise becomes an important factor, we will find
ways to improve the belugas' quality of of life."
Lesage has been studying belugas and other whales for
over a decade.
"The blue whale is impressive when it comes close to
the boat, but I find it boring compared with belugas.
"Belugas have personality - I just love them."
- For information on whales in the St. Lawrence River,
check the Web at www.whalesonline.com
- Ann Carroll's E-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Resident belugas in the St. Lawrence River: about 1,000
Other whales that visit the area in small numbers:
blue, finback, minke, sperm, humpback, right
Permits in 2002 for whale-watching boats in the Saguenay-St.
Lawrence Marine Park: 59
Whale-watching excursions: 10,000 per year
Number of tourists: 400,000 per year
Employment impact: 1,200 seasonal jobs
Regional economic impact: $80 million per year