Belugas on the Move: Expedition seeks to unveil St. Lawrence beluga mysteries

MONTREAL, Oct. 15, 2015 /CNW/ - An expedition now underway in the St. Lawrence estuary is looking to unveil long-standing mysteries: where a highly threatened population of beluga whales spends the winter, and how to prevent further declines in the number of this iconic Canadian species.

With under 900 belugas left in the St. Lawrence Estuary, the expedition – called, "Belugas on the Move" – will use remotely deployed satellite tags to track individual whales over the fall and winter. Data received from the tags will be used to collect more information on whale groupings and behaviour in areas where belugas have not been studied before.

The expedition is being led by Quebec's Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) in collaboration with the Maurice Lamontagne Institute, part of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. WWF and the Donner Canadian Foundation are supporting the research, which runs from October to the end of February 2016.

"Very little is known about St. Lawrence belugas outside of their summer range, which falls between Saint-Jean-Port-Joli and Rimouski, Quebec," said Robert Michaud, GREMM's scientific lead. "Our goal now is to find out where these belugas spend the winter, and what needs to be done to protect their entire habitat range."

There were an estimated 10,000 belugas in the St. Lawrence River before 1885, but commercial whaling reduced the population to around 1,000 by the late 1970s. Two decades of relative stability were followed by another population decline in the early 2000s, prompting a committee of scientists to recommend that that the St. Lawrence beluga population be listed as endangered in Canada in December 2014.

"The St. Lawrence River - and the estuary where the belugas breed and calve - is experiencing rapid environmental change: Water temperatures are on the rise, while winter ice cover is declining. Persistent toxins from upstream discharges, food shortage and habitat degradation through industrial development are all factors influencing the population decline," said Bettina Saier, Vice President of Oceans at WWF-Canada.

"Belugas on the Move" will tag up to six whales, which will offer the GREMM-led group of scientists an important window into trends in habitat quality and other human-imposed stressors that are believed to be influencing the continued beluga population decline.

The expedition aims to cover the entire St. Lawrence beluga range, taking researchers from Tadoussac, Quebec and northeast into the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Follow the team's progress and findings on blog.wwf.ca/belugasonthemove and whalesonline.org or on Twitter with the hashtag #SOSBelugas. Preliminary results will be announced in March 2016, and the complete findings will be released later in 2016. 

About GREMM
Founded in 1985 and based in Tadoussac, Quebec, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) is a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research on the whales of the St. Lawrence and to education for the conservation of the marine environment. gremm.org

About WWF
WWF-Canada is creating solutions to the most serious conservation challenges facing our planet to help people and nature thrive. wwf.ca

SOURCE WWF-Canada

For further information: Chris Chaplin, Senior Communications Specialist, WWF-Canada, cchaplin@wwfcanada.org, +1 416 669 9155.

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