The St. Lawrence Beluga
The male beluga is usually bigger than the female beluga and they grow to be about 10 to 15 feet long. The beluga is a milky white colour. The beluga has very smooth skin. It has rounded features on its face and 32 to 40 small teeth. Its rounded forehead is called a "melon". The beluga has brown eyes. The beluga is also called the white whale. Beluga is Russian for "whitish". The beluga's chief predators are the Killer Whale, Polar Bears and humans. It is mostly found in the Arctic area and lives on schooling fish such as Caplin, Smelt, Herring and Cod. It also eats larger fish, octopus, squids, paddle worms and shrimps. It communicates with a variety of clicks, whistles and squeals. The beluga whales mate in spring and the gestation period is 13 to 14 months. The young are born between March and August, reaching a peak in June.
Why are they endangered?
The beluga whales have been hunted by the native people for hundreds of years, but, the arrival of the European hunters in North America was what nearly killed all of the St. Lawrence Belugas. Hunting continued for a long time, until the mid 1960s, but, by 1978 it was officially banned. Now, there are less than 500 individuals living in the St. Lawrence River area. The biggest threat to the belugas today is the high level of toxic dumping in the St. Lawrence.
The Saguenay Fjord, a favorite feeding area for the belugas, is also the sight of many industries, most of which emit pollutants into the river. Over 265,000 tons of liquid chemical waste is dumped in the river every year. In a study conducted over six years, 50 beluga carcasses were collected from the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Scientists found many of the whales had tumors and lesions and showed serious reproductive problems. Health problems found in the beluga whales include cancers, hormonal dysfuntion, infertility, immune depression and organ damage, which have been linked to an exposure to many harmful contaminants.
Some of the chemicals and contaminants that are killing the belugas are DDT, PCB's, Mirex, PAH's, dioxins, various other chemicals and heavy metals like lead and mercury. Some of the poor belugas were so contaminated with dangerous chemicals that they could be legally classified as hazardous waste. One chemical contributing to whale disease in the St. Lawrence is benzopryene, which is emitted by aluminum smelters in the Saguenay River. Damming the river has not only reduced the belugas habitat, but has also stirred up toxins deposited by years and years of industrial pollution in the sediment.
The threat of an oil spill or a toxic leak from one of the thousands of commercial vessels in the river is always there. The noise made by recreational and whale watching boats is almost constantly disturbing these noise-sensitive whales.
Written by: Amanda Jesberger & Jacqueline McKenzie.
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