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Good news for St Lawrence belugas… for now

Credit: GREMM

Last week, we had good news (albeit temporary) about one of Canada’s most threatened wildlife species – the beautiful beluga whales of the St Lawrence Estuary.

CPAWS’ Quebec chapter (SNAP in French) and other environmental groups won a Quebec Superior Court decision on September 23rd ordering a halt to planned drilling by TransCanada for a new petroleum port at Cacouna, in the St Lawrence River, in some of the most important habitat for beluga whales and many other marine species including krill and capelin. TransCanada wants to build the port as an eastern terminus for the proposed Energy East pipeline from the Alberta and Saskatchewan oil sands.

However, for much longer than TransCanada has had its eye on Cacouna, CPAWS has too – because the town lies at the heart of a long-proposed marine protected area that would surround the current Saguenay – St Lawrence Marine Park – acclaimed for its whale watching and eco-tourism activities. These rich waters are the last best hope for the long threatened belugas, once in the estimated thousands, now numbering around 900.

Credit: GREMM

For the past 20 years, the belugas have been making somewhat of a comeback after a century of overhunting and exposure to toxic waste and noise pollution. Their survival depends on protecting the nursery where the belugas give birth, raise their young and shelter from excessive noise. That nursery includes the very part of the St Lawrence River where the Cacouna port would be built, and where supertankers would dock, fill their holds and set out for Europe.

This is only a short reprieve for the belugas. The court has ordered Trans Canada to hold off drilling until October 15th, at which time the whales are expected to have left the area and headed to the Gulf of St Lawrence where they overwinter. This reprieve follows one in the spring when we were in court with other groups, forcing TransCanada to avoid drilling during the birthing and post natal period of summer. Be assured, we’ll be heading back to court if necessary to ensure that no drilling occurs that would harm marine mammals.

Our bigger goal however is to ensure that the long-proposed marine protected area around Cacouna is in fact created. And this, at the moment, is by no means certain. We were informed in the summer by Fisheries and Oceans Canada that a Canada-Quebec government working group was in place with the intention of protecting this region - with the primary purpose of protecting beluga habitat and ensuring protection of other marine mammals that frequent the area.

However, when media reports cast doubt on this assertion, we filed an Access to Information request for the working group’s meeting notes and files. On September 26th, we received our response. Here’s a partial extract from the ATIP office (translated from the French):

“No documents were provided (by DFO) concerning the working group. …  This federal-provincial group, after many years of inactivity, was recently reactivated. To date, it has not addressed the question of the area of interest of the St Lawrence Estuary.”

To say the least, we are disappointed. This means that despite Québec and Canada's poor performances in marine conservation... nobody is actually working on DFO's own project of protecting the Estuary! Here is what we are asking for to safeguard the health of the belugas and one of Canada’s richest marine environments. 

  1. we’re asking the Quebec government to revoke its authorization to TransCanada for drilling and instead mandate a full environmental assessment (BAPE) of the Energy East project.
  2. we’re asking both the federal and provincial governments to initiate a TRANSPARENT process to protect the St Lawrence Estuary.

After 15 years, no more bafflegab, and no more delays! Canada has one of the worst international records of marine protection. It’s time to show that we WILL act responsibly to protect the health of the world’s ocean.

Related News

Financial Post: Quebec halts TransCanada's exploratory drilling in Cacouna

Montreal Gazette: Review of St Lawrence drilling permits ordered TransCanada work on St Lawrence port usspended by Quebec court order

For more detail about the St Lawrence beluga population, see DFO’s website.