Marine Mammal health experts from Shedd Aquarium (Chicago, Ill.), Vancouver Aquarium (Vancouver, B.C.), and the University of Montreal (Montreal, Que.) yesterday assisted in the rescue and relocation of a young male beluga whale that was separated from its herd and found alone earlier this month hundreds of kilometers from its usual summer range. The bi-national operation was the first scientific rescue and release attempt for the endangered St. Lawrence Estuary (SLE) population.
On Thursday morning scientists, veterinarians and animal care experts led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) used expertise gained over 50 years of caring for animals at Shedd Aquarium and Vancouver Aquarium, along with decades of experience rescuing cetaceans, to move the animal from the Nepisiguit River in New Brunswick and release it back into the SLE beluga population. The 20-person team, including personnel from the marine mammal teams at Shedd and Vancouver Aquarium, coaxed the whale into a net using an acoustic deterrent device, and then transferred him into a sling. The whale was then carried from the river and placed onto a truck, which took the whale to the airport. The team then placed the beluga on a plane for the 45-minute flight back to the St. Lawrence Estuary. Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at Vancouver Aquarium, provided medical guidance throughout the journey. Upon landing, the team moved the whale from the plane to a pontoon raft, which was lowered into the estuary.
The beluga was released from the raft and has been seen socializing with three other young beluga whales.
The whale is a member of the SLE population of belugas, listed as Endangered under Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Human pressures — including pollution and underwater noise —have caused the SLE beluga population to dwindle to fewer than 900 individuals, from an estimated 10,000 prior to 1885.
“It was a bold plan, and not without some risk,” said Shedd Aquarium Executive Vice President of Animals Tim Binder about the rescue effort, which was led by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and GREMM (Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals). “We believed this animal to be a member of the endangered population, which means every individual is significant to the group’s overall sustainability and survival, so we knew we had to respond quickly by lending our expertise and resources on the ground.”
The approximately five-foot-long, whale was first spotted June 2, several kilometres up the Nepisiguit River near Bathurst, New Brunswick. At this time of year, belugas are typically in a seasonal migration further west, in the St. Lawrence River, where groups of adults, newborn calves and juveniles are socializing, feeding, and rearing young. Rescuers believe the whale —a juvenile estimated to be two to three years old — likely took a wrong turn when the water level was higher in the Nepisiguit, and had been unable to return to the ocean.
Although the animal appeared healthy, scientists from DFO, GREMM, the Marine Animal Response Society, the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network and the Whale Stewardship Project were concerned about its long-term welfare and survival without its herd, and about growing interest and possible interference by members of the public.
“The success of this rescue effort so far is heartening,” said Dr. Haulena. “We were concerned about the animal’s welfare of course, but this effort is also a feasibility study to determine if rescuing individuals will help the population. This group of belugas has been suffering critical losses over the past decade, and every whale is important.”
Both Vancouver and Shedd are supporters of GREMM, working closely together to share knowledge and expertise, collaborate on research and ultimately provide insight into the factors contributing to the decline of this population in order to facilitate the recovery and protection of the belugas’ environment in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence watershed.
The rescued whale has been fitted with a satellite tag to assess the success of the rescue and relocation effort and to help inform these efforts. In addition to helping this individual animal, the outcome of the effort may provide important information to the discussion about whether introducing belugas from other areas to the St. Lawrence could become a tool for bolstering the endangered St. Lawrence beluga population.