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COSEWIC Assessment and Update Status Report on the Beluga Whale in Canada

Special Significance of the Species

The beluga is the only species in the genus Delphinapterus. In southern Canada the population living in the St. Lawrence Estuary is a relict Arctic species, originating (together with the Eastern Hudson Bay population) from an eastern refugium that persisted during the Wisconsin Ice Age. Recently, with the reduction in the St. Lawrence Estuary population by hunting and the threat to the remaining population from industrialization, the beluga has become a symbol of marine conservation efforts in Canada.

For the Inuit in some communities, belugas are a preferred food item; they are extremely nutritious, and much-sought-after as a subsistence resource throughout the Arctic (McGhee 1974, Reeves and Mitchell 1987, Byers and Roberts 1995).

The beluga was one of the first cetaceans to be kept in aquaria, where it adapts readily and survives well under present modern husbandry. It has long been in the eye of the public. A number of aquaria throughout the world have successfully bred belugas and maintain breeding stocks.

Both captive and free-ranging belugas, because they are easy to handle, have helped further our scientific knowledge of cetaceans in many fields. These include marine mammal medicine (Ridgway 1973, St. Aubin et al. 2001), behaviour (Auet al. 1985, Sjare and Smith 1986, Caron and Smith 1990, Smith et al. 1994), and ecology (Reeves and St. Aubin 2001).