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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 Tadoussac.

"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 hearing loss."

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 River.

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 water temperature.

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 belugas.

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 said.

"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

- Ann Carroll's E-mail address is

Whale facts

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

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