$ 1 million to examine the health of St. Lawrence belugas

MONTREAL – Researchers have raised almost $ 1 million from the Canadian government to examine the health of one of Quebec’s most emblematic mammals, the beluga whale of the St. Lawrence Estuary.

“The main objective is to evaluate the exposure of St. Lawrence belugas to a cocktail of contaminants that had not been considered in the past,” said Professor Jonathan Verreault, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Montreal. University of Quebec in Montreal. We want to update the portrait of the contamination in this species. ”

Mr. Verreault and his colleagues received this funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The first results are expected at the end of the summer.

Researchers will try to detect the presence of certain new contaminants that are part of consumer products, such as pharmaceuticals, plasticizers and surfactants.

“There is an impressive lot of contaminants on the market, many of which are not regularly monitored in the environment,” said Verreault. The goal is to see if we have not overlooked certain chemical compounds that accumulate in beluga tissues and that could pose a toxicological risk. ”

The analyzes will be performed on carcasses harvested over the years, but also from biopsies performed on live animals. The researchers hope to be able to identify classes of contaminants that could pose greater risks of toxicity.

But given the scale of their study, Verreault admits that surprises are possible.

“Beluga tissues may contain substances that have never been considered in the past,” he said. It must be remembered that the beluga whale is an excellent sentinel in the St. Lawrence: what is not found in Beluga tissues is probably not bioaccumulative for most species. ”

The beluga population in the St. Lawrence is classified as endangered by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), “which means that we currently have a population that is accumulating at the foot of the wall,” according to Mr. Verreault.

More and more mortality of young females

Researchers have noted in recent years more and more mortality of young females in the calving process. Some of these complications have been associated with hormonal disturbances, which can be caused by the presence of chemicals in the environment.

“We think it’s a cocktail effect of different environmental stressors that are responsible for the decline of this population,” said the researcher.

Once the contaminants have been identified in the beluga, we will have to see if they are also found in other species or in the St. Lawrence food chain, to decide whether to worry and determine how we can act. .

Mr. Verreault recalls that “less than 1 per cent of the contaminants we are working on come from the beluga’s critical habitat”.

“The important emission points of these compounds are municipal effluents, industrial effluents, atmospheric deposition … In fact, all the major cities along the St. Lawrence basin and the Great Lakes”, he explained.

The study will be conducted by UQAM, the University of Quebec at Rimouski, the Tadoussac Marine Mammal Research and Education Group, the University of Toronto, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada .

There are approximately 900 Belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary. This population is declining, despite the efforts to reduce noise pollution and maritime traffic deployed for 30 years.

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