Sague­nay-st. Lawrence Marine Park, Que­bec

Canadian Geographic - - PARK PROTECTORS -

The warm wa­ters and calm cur­rents in Sague­nay–st. Lawrence Marine Park are the per­fect place for fe­male bel­uga whales to birth, nurse and rear their young. Their herd’s squeal-like chat­ter and bub­ble-blow­ing are eas­ily heard by campers who land one of the hand­ful of tent sites that dot the nearby shore­line. But de­spite the live­li­ness of vo­cal­iza­tions drift­ing across the wa­ter, all is not well for these al­ready crit­i­cally en­dan­gered an­i­mals. In the sum­mer of 2017, 889 bel­u­gas re­turned here — a frac­tion of the es­ti­mated 8,000 to 10,000 that once swam in these wa­ters. And now, a very wor­ri­some trend: moth­ers and their calves are in­creas­ingly dy­ing in child­birth — yearly av­er­age calf deaths have in­creased from two to seven since 2010. Ve­teri­nar­i­ans that study the bel­u­gas think stress caused when boaters ap­proach a preg­nant fe­male in the days be­fore she de­liv­ers her calf, or dur­ing the de­liv­ery it­self, is partly re­spon­si­ble. “This is a big is­sue for us in the con­ser­va­tion of bel­u­gas,” says park re­source con­ser­va­tion man­ager Pierre Beau­fils. “It’s the rea­son we work with boaters to keep them a safe dis­tance from the an­i­mals.” In this na­tional marine con­ser­va­tion area, pro­tec­tive reg­u­la­tions that pre­vent boats from get­ting too close are crit­i­cal, along with on­go­ing re­search and mon­i­tor­ing to bet­ter un­der­stand how bel­u­gas in­ter­act with their en­vi­ron­ment. For ex­am­ple, Beau­fils and other sci­en­tists are study­ing the avail­abil­ity of the prey species bel­u­gas feed on, which may also have an im­pact on birth rates. “If a fe­male doesn’t have enough qual­ity food to pro­vide her en­ergy to give birth, she might not be able to get preg­nant, or she might lose the calf,” says Beau­fils. Food avail­abil­ity is just one of many chal­lenges bel­u­gas face, and pro­tect­ing them will re­quire build­ing re­la­tion­ships with com­mu­nity mem­bers and peo­ple work­ing in in­dus­tries around the park, says Beau­fils. “It is about con­nect­ing their hearts and minds to the place so they will be­come am­bas­sadors of its pro­tec­tion.”

A bel­uga whale in the Sague­nay–st. Lawrence Marine Park.

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