Binational Partnership Protects Belugas

Maybe you thought the only beluga whales in the Great Lakes region live at Shedd Aquarium. But the four shown above reside in the St. Lawrence River in Canada, which carries waters flowing from the Great Lakes basin toward the Atlantic Ocean. The belugas are part of an endangered population that is the focus of a binational conservation effort that includes Shedd Aquarium.

In 2014, Shedd formally joined forces with Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), a Quebec-based not-for-profit conservation organization, in Project Beluga. The long-running project includes more than 45 scientific, zoological, educational and governmental contributors united in an effort to turn around the decline of this southernmost population of beluga whales.

Belugas have been among the most beloved animals at Shedd since the opening of the Abbott Oceanarium, and they are a focus of the aquarium’s conservation program and rescue efforts. Shedd’s commitment to GREMM’s Project Beluga expands its dedication to the survival of these white whales in the wild as well as to the health of the Great Lakes.

Belugas are often called “canaries of the sea” for their chirping vocalizations, but the St. Lawrence whales have become canaries in the coal mine for a section of the St. Lawrence River ecosystem. The whales, which live near the mouth of Quebec’s Saguenay River, have been under tremendous pressure for more than a century, first from hunting, then from toxic industrial pollutants that caused high mortalities from cancer.

Since then the whales’ habitat has been cleaned up and protected, but still the whales are not thriving. The population has declined by 15 percent in the last 10 years, to fewer than 900 individuals—a mere remnant of the estimated 10,000 belugas present in these waters in the 19th century. Most recently, toxic algal blooms, perhaps resulting from warmer water temperatures, have killed many adults and record numbers of calves.

GREMM has been studying the St. Lawrence belugas since the 1980s. During each June-to-October field season, GREMM researchers spend 800 hours on the water, observing the whales from small boats and building a database on nearly 350 animals, with photographs, anatomical and behavioral observations, habitat preferences and genetic information.

Climate-related changes in the environment make monitoring more critical than ever. In addition to contributing knowledge and hands-on expertise, Shedd is supporting this long-term and labor-intensive baseline research and equally crucial pathology and toxicology lab work. The combined data will help the researchers learn what factors are holding back the whales’ recovery and determine what actions need to be taken to ensure the survival of the wild beluga population that calls Great Lakes region home.