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Consultation Workbook Regarding the Addition of the St. Lawrence Population of Beluga to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk under the Species at Risk Act

Consultation Workbook Regarding the Addition of the St. Lawrence Population of Beluga to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk under the Species at Risk Act



Your opinion is being sought by the Canadian Government in order to make an informed decision concerning the addition of the Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population) to the “List of Wildlife Species at Risk”, as presented in Schedule 1 of the Species at Risk Act (SARA).

The status of the Beluga Whale (St. Lawrence population) was reviewed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) in May 2004. Since the COSEWIC has designated the St.Lawrence Beluga Whale as being “threatened”, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans must now decide whether to recommend that the Governor in Council adds the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Before deciding how to proceed, the federal government wishes to consult Canadians, particularly those directly concerned, to obtain their opinion in order to properly determine the social and economic impacts, both positive and negative, of the addition of the St.Lawrence Beluga Whale to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This consultation workbook was therefore designed with this objective in mind.

We encourage you to answer the questions (any or all) at the end of this workbook. We also invite you to add any comment you consider relevant. Your answers and comments will be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.  Responses are required before:

12 November 2004

You can download a copy of this consultation workbook and find additional information regarding SARA at the following Internet address:


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The Species At Risk

1. The Species at Risk Act

A large variety of wildlife species inhabit Canadian lands and waters. Unfortunately some of them are in danger of disappearing. The Canadian government has therefore seriously committed to protecting them, particularly by adopting the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in June 2003, as part of its Endangered Wildlife Species Protection Strategy.

This Act provides a legal framework for adopting measures, throughout Canada, that will ensure the survival of wild animal and plant species and protect our natural heritage. This Act also establishes the criteria being used to determine which species must rapidly become the focus of recovery measures, and the methods to implement recovery in order to protect them. Finally, this Act establishes guidelines for cooperation between governments, organizations and individuals, and provides sanctions for offenders.

Environment Canada is responsible for the overall implementation of SARA. Fisheries and Oceans Canada has the responsibility for aquatic species at risk, except for individuals located on territories managed by Parks Canada (national parks, national historical sites, national marine conservation areas, and other protected heritage sites).

Since no single organization or entity can, on its own, take on the responsibility of ensuring the survival of a species, the effectiveness of the new Act will depend on everyone’s goodwill to ensure the survival of all species at risk. With this in mind, SARA requires, at several steps throughout the process, that the federal government consult provincial and territorial governments, First Nations, landowners, resource users, and the general public.

This workbook was developed to assist Fisheries and Oceans Canada with consulting with stakeholders about adding the Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population) to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk in Appendix 1 of SARA. This list contains the species which are protected under the Act. They are species which have been reviewed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), and for which a species at risk status was given. COSEWIC designated the St.Lawrence population of Beluga Whales as Threatened in May 2004. The reader will find more details in the following sections regarding the addition of wild species, in particular Beluga Whales, to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk and its legal consequences.

1.1 The role of COSEWIC

The mandate of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is to assess wild animal and plant species present in Canada and assign a designation to each based on their status. The Committee is comprised of specialists working in various relevant fields such as biology, ecology and traditional native knowledge. Members of COSEWIC come from different areas, such as governments, universities, aboriginal organizations, and non-governmental organizations. They are appointed according to their expertise, and must provide independent, impartial and scientific advice and recommendations in accordance with the mission of COSEWIC.

COSEWIC assesses the biological status of wildlife species by using the best scientific and traditional knowledge available. It reviews research and takes into account aboriginal community and traditional knowledge. In its species assessment, COSEWIC uses rigorous assessment criteria based on those developed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).  Occasionally, COSEWIC will consider the situation of other ecologically significant units such as sub-species or populations.

The first step in assessing the status of a wildlife species is to request a status report, which will then be reviewed by peers and approved by a sub-committee of experts on the species. During a meeting of COSEWIC members (once or twice a year), the status report is examined, and discussions are held in order to determine whether the species is at risk, and if necessary, to provide a status designation.

The statuses provided, which represent risk level categories, are as follows:

"extinct" species "
any species that no longer exists
"extirpated" species"
any species that no longer exists in the wild in Canada, but exists elsewhere
"endangered" species"
any species facing imminent extirpation or extinction
"threatened" species"
any species likely to become endangered if limiting factors affecting it are not reversed
"special concern" species"
any species raising concerns because of characteristics that make it particularly sensitive to human activity or to certain natural phenomena
"not at risk" species"
any species examined and considered not at risk under the current conditions
"data deficient" species"
any species examined for which available data are not sufficient to establish its status.

COSEWIC submits its species assessment to the Minister of the Environment, who, in collaboration with the other competent ministers if necessary, initiates the process of adding the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk.

For more information, please visit the COSEWIC Web site at the following address:

http://www.cosewic. gc.ca

1.2 Wildlife species listing process

Once COSEWIC has determined that a wildlife species is “at risk”, the first step to ensure its protection is to add it to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Otherwise, it will not benefit from SARA protection. When COSEWIC submits its assessment to the Minister of the Environment, the Minister must produce a recommendation and present it to the Governor in Council (GIC). Within nine months of receiving the COSEWIC assessment (from the Minister of the Environment), GIC must react to the report and recommendation in one of the following ways:

a)    accept the assessment and add the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk;

b)    decide not to add the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk;

c)     refer the matter back to COSEWIC for further information or consideration.

After nine months, if the Governor in Council has not taken any decision, the Minister of the Environment must add the species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk, according to the COSEWIC assessment.

The Governor in Council’s decision will initially consider the opinion of COSEWIC, which is based on the biological situation of the species. However, in order to make an informed decision, the Government of Canada must assess other factors such as the social and economic impacts that could occur from adding a species to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. This consultation is an opportunity for concerned Canadians to express their point of view and voice their concerns on this subject.

Once a species is listed as “extirpated”, “endangered” or “threatened”, several processes are triggered. Initially, a series of prohibitions are implemented to protect the individuals, their residence and eventually their critical habitat. If not already available, a recovery strategy and an action plan must then be developed. In the case of “special concern” species, a management plan must be developed but automatic prohibitions are not required.

1.3 Protection

Under the terms of SARA, Fisheries and Oceans Canada must ensure the protection of all aquatic species at risk. When a species is added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk with an “extirpated”, “endangered” or “threatened” status, prohibitions are automatically applied. The Act prohibits the killing, harming, harassing, capturing or taking of any individual belonging to that species. It also prohibits people from possessing, collecting, buying, selling or trading individuals of a species at risk. As well, the Act prohibits the damage or destruction of the residence or any part of the species’ critical habitat, as defined within a recovery strategy or an action plan.

It should be noted that these prohibitions, which have come into effect June 1st 2004, do not apply to “special concern” species. For aquatic species, exceptions to these restrictions may be authorized by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, as long as the survival or recovery of the species is not jeopardized. The Minister may conclude agreements or issue licences only if he considers that the activity concerning a listed species 1) represents scientific research related to the conservation of the species, 2) is beneficial to the species or increases its chances of survival, or 3) only affects this species in an incidental way. Furthermore, the competent minister must be of the opinion that a) all reasonable alternatives have been considered and the best approach adopted, b) all feasible measures will be taken to minimize impacts and c) the activity will not jeopardize the survival or recovery of the species.

1.4 Recovery planning and management plan

The goal of the recovery process for “extirpated”, “endangered” or “threatened” species is to reduce the causes of decline for that species by putting emphasis on stewardship and public awareness among others. First, a recovery strategy is prepared. It contains recovery objectives and strategies that are developed according to the threats the species is facing. Thereafter, an action plan is developed, which details the actions flowing from the recovery strategy.

The recovery of a species requires planning and teamwork. The competent Minister must gather the people, organizations and jurisdictions who share an interest in the species (i.e. federal government ministers, provincial or territorial governments in charge of the territory where the species is located, wildlife resource management boards, First Nations organizations, landowners and other people likely to be interested in the recovery of the species). These people will be consulted during development of the recovery strategy. Planning for recovery is a continuous process; the competent minister must report on the implementation of the recovery strategy and on the progress made towards meeting its objectives every 5 years.

Furthermore, a recovery strategy and an action plan must identify to the extent possible the species’ critical habitat, as well as activities that are likely to affect or destroy it. When the knowledge available on this habitat is inadequate, the strategy will have to establish a research schedule in order to fill the gaps. Once the critical habitat has been identified and described in a recovery strategy or action plan, it becomes illegal to destroy it.

In the case of a “special concern” species, a management plan is developed which must include measures for the conservation of the species and its habitat. Management plans are developed in collaboration with qualified provincial or territorial ministers, federal ministers, wildlife resource management boards, and any other relevant person or organization.

Once the recovery strategies, action plans, or management plans are developed, they are published on the Public Registry (see section 1.5). Anyone can make comments to the appropriate Minister in writing concerning the recovery strategy, the action plan, or the management plan for a listed animal or plant species. The general public has 60 days, after publication of the strategy or the plans in the Registry, to inform the Minister of their position.

1.5 Public Registry

The SARA Public Registry, available on the Internet, is a complete source of information on topics covered by the Act and which offers access to public records concerning the administration of SARA. It is a key instrument in allowing the government to respect its commitment to support public contribution in the environmental decision making process.

The Registry includes various documents, such as regulations, orders, agreements, guidelines, standards and codes of practice. Furthermore, it contains status reports, recovery strategies, action plans, as well as management plans. The Public Registry can be found at the following address:


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Species information

2. Basic Information on the Beluga Whale

2.1 Population

2.1.1 Significance of the population

Belugas living in the St.Lawrence estuary are considered a relict population distinct from other populations of the Arctic.  Recognition of the discreteness of this small population of belugas, mainly centred near the mouth of the Saguenay River, relied on the absence of any significant numbers of belugas in the areas contiguous to their location. Few belugas are found along the North Shore of the Gulf of St.Lawrence or the south Labrador coast confirming the lack of an extant connection between the belugas of the St.Lawrence and those populations occupying the sub-Arctic coastline of Quebec and Nunavut.

The St.Lawrence belugas are more genetically distinct than all other Canadian beluga populations. This population has one haplotype which has not yet been found anywhere else and another haplotype which is common only in belugas of eastern Hudson Bay, particularly those sampled in the Nastapoka River Estuary.  It has been postulated that both the St.Lawrence and Eastern Hudson Bay beluga might have originated from the inland sea of

the Lakes Agassiz and Ojibway, a refugium extant during the Wisconsin period of glaciation.

2.1.2 Distribution

This population is centred on the region influenced by the outflow of the Saguenay River. The summer distribution is well known and has changed little in the last twenty years. Recent aerial surveys have enumerated belugas in the whole of their summer range. No significant numbers are reported downstream past Ile du Bic or upstream past Ile aux Coudes.

Little is known of the winter distribution of St Lawrence belugas. There appears to be a slight increase in the use of the areas a little further downstream during the winter months

St Lawrence Riverbelugas now occupy only a small part of their former range, which extended further downstream to Pointe-des-Monts and Cap-Chat and upstream well past Ile aux Coudes. The belugas living near the Manicouagan River have been heavily exploited and the hydro-electric damming of the river might have resulted in their disappearance.

2.1.3 Population size and trend

Surveys of this population have been conducted since 1973. The analysis of the most recent photographic aerial survey made in 2000 has indicated no significant increase in numbers of belugas since 1988 when survey methodology was standardized.  Although the series of surveys made since 1973 suggest from the resulting abundance indices an apparent increase in population size, that conclusion is debated by scientists.  A precautionary conclusion is to consider the population stable until demonstrated otherwise.

Scientists measured experimentally a correction factor for submerged belugas invisible to aerial photography in the St.Lawrence.  Such a correction factor provides a mean to transform a survey index into an objective value of total population size.  The factor measured experimentally in the St.Lawrence was +109% which is comparable to factors developed for surveys made on belugas in the Arctic. Recent estimates of total numbers of belugas in the St.Lawrence population, corrected for submerged animals, are 1 209 individuals for the 1997 survey and 952 animals in 2000.  Part of the difference between these estimates can be attributed to the intrinsic error due to the photographic sampling methodology.

Standardization of survey methods since 1988 and periodic monitoring of this population in the future will probably result in deriving good estimates of the population trends.

2.2 Biology

2.2.1 Morphology

Beluga, Delphinapterus leucas, is a marine mammal.  This small toothed whale is characterized by a lack of dorsal fin, a melon-like structure on its head above the beak and its completely white color at maturity.  Males reach a total length of 2.6 m to 4.5 m and females a smaller size at approximately 80 % of that of the male, for a maximum of 3.5 m.  Animals of both sexes are similar in appearance. Newborn calves are pale grey at birth, sometimes with a darker mottled coloration, and 150 cm in length, which is half the length of their mothers.  Yearling calves are darker grey and 60-65% of their mothers’ length, at approximately 2 m.  Older juveniles gradually become paler in colour until they turn pure white at, or shortly after, the age of sexual maturity.

2.2.2 Reproduction

Beluga females mature sexually between 4 and 7 years old, males somewhat older, at 6 or 7 years.  Mating probably occurs at the end of winter or in the spring, in the wintering areas.  Gestation is estimated to be in the order 12.8 to approximately 14.5 months. The peak calving time appears to occur during the late spring migration or early summer but is not easily observed.  Lactation is estimated to last from 20 to 32 months.  It is estimated that a complete cycle between successive pregnancies is approximately 3 years.

2.2.3 Demography

Belugas are long-lived mammals with life spans in the range of 15-30 years.  Most population parameters available for belugas have been derived from samples of dead animals. The age specific frequencies obtained from collected belugas are subject to various sampling biases that make the accurate calculation of the survivorship of the age classes virtually impossible. An estimate of the instantaneous rate of increase of the population is consequently difficult to obtain from these demographic data. Nevertheless, it is felt that unexploited beluga populations, which are below carrying capacity, could increase at a rate in the range of 2.5 to 3.5 percent per annum.

2.2.4 Behavior

Belugas tend to form groups that can be discriminated by their sex composition or by the presence of juveniles. Distribution patterns within the territory occupied by the population likely reflect the ecological and behavioural needs of the different social groups. In fact, belugas exhibit a strong tenacity to specific sites.  Appproximately 20 such sites have been identified in the St.Lawrence estuary and in the Saguenay. Attachment to specific sites seems to be related to matrilinearity (social structure centered on a mother) and protection of those sites is thus crucial.  Two of the best known such sites are the passage of Ile-aux-Lièvres and Bay Sainte-Marguerite in the Saguenay.

2.2.5 Feeding and Diet

Feeding ecology of the St.Lawrence Beluga is not sufficiently known to determine whether its needs are faced with any problem.  Its diet is diversified and includes several species of fish and invertebrates.  Herring, capelin, tomcod, squid and polychete worms are among the species identified.  During the long winter season, its feeding strategies and availability of preys are unknown.  The trophic level occupied by belugas in the St.Lawrence is close but not identical to that of local species of seals.   Question is open about the possibility that other marine mammals could be competing with belugas for some food resources.

2.3 Why has COSEWIC given the Beluga Whale a threatened species status?


COSEWIC Assessment summary for the Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population) - May 2004

  Common name

Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population)

Scientific name

Delphinapterus leucas



Reason for designation

  That population was greatly reduced by hunting, which lasted until 1979. Heavy contamination may have also contributed to the decline of the population.  Aerial surveys since 1973 suggest that the decline in the population size has stopped, but do not provide clear evidence of an important increase in numbers.  Levels of many toxics are still high in the tissues of belugas.  The whales and their habitat are threatened by contaminants, maritime traffic and industrialization of the St.Lawrence River watershed.


  Quebec ; Atlantic Ocean

Status history

  Was designated “endangered” in April 1983 and April 1997.   Review of the status: the species was designated”threatened” in May 2004.  The last assessment was based on an updated report on the situation.

According to recent aerial surveys, the beluga population in the St.Lawrence estuary is considered stable or at least, is not dropping nor increasing at a measurable rate. Its size is approximately a thousand animals, of which 600 would be mature and able to contribute to reproduction. This is clearly higher than the numbers used when COSEWIC initiallly classified that population as endangered.  It was presumed then to include 350 individuals and be declining. When its situation was reviewed in 2004, the total number of individuals capable of contributing to reproduction was estimated at less than 1000, which prompted COSEWIC to recommend that it be considered threatened. The complete assessment report used for the revision of the status is available on the internet site of the SARA public registry.

2.4 What are the threats to the St.Lawrence Beluga Whale?

While belugas are subjected to various causes of natural mortality, such as predation and infectious disease, it is essentially human factors that should be identified and properly managed in order to promote the recovery of the St.Lawrence population of Beluga Whale.

The loss and perturbation of habitat is a continuing threat for St Lawrence belugas which live in a relatively restricted zone of a heavily traveled and populated area.  Both commercial shipping and whale watching activities have increased significantly in the area over the last 40 years. It has been demonstrated that boat traffic had a significant effect on the vocal behaviour of belugas.  Little is known of the immediate or chronic stress responses, which belugas might have to these various disturbances factors, and how it might affect their feeding, mating and nurturing behaviour.

Large numbers of beluga carcasses have been recovered along the inhabited shorelines of the St Lawrence River and have allowed considerable research into the causes of mortality. Links have been postulated between the prevalence of cancerous tumors and the exposure of St Lawrence belugas to industrial pollutants. Various contaminants known for their toxic and carcinogenous properties have been detected and often measured in high levels. But debates continue on whether correlations between pollutants and pathologies are truly indicative of a direct cause and effect relationship, and whether the sample of recovered carcasses is representative of measured cancer rates within the live population.  Because little information exists from other Arctic beluga populations on cancer rates and since the St Lawrence beluga cancer samples come mainly from old animals, it is difficult to evaluate this question.  There is nevertheless no doubt that belugas of the St.Lawrence are more exposed to pollutants than any other beluga population in Canada.

The small size and lower genetic diversity of this population has lead to the speculation that inbreeding might be suppressing the reproductive rates.  While the genetic diversity of this population is the lowest in all Canadian populations, the degree to which inbreeding suppression is a limiting factor is hard to evaluate. It should be noted that marine mammals, particularly seal populations of many species, have experienced severe reduction to very low numbers where a genetic bottleneck could have occurred and yet have rebounded to very high densities. Other genetic factors, such as changes at particular loci, might be implicated in a reduced capacity of the St Lawrence Population to respond to certain pathogens.

Other possible limiting factors include competition for resources with commercial fisheries and other increasing populations of marine mammals such as harp seals and grey seals. More detailed research must be conducted before the effect of competition can be critically evaluated, particularly since belugas eat a variety of food species, and are capable of deep foraging dives.  It should be noted however, that even with the high carcass recovery rate, no cases of starvation have been documented.

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Overview of potential consequences for different stakenholders

3. Overview of potential consequences for different stakeholders

This consultation workbook was designed so that stakeholders can better understand the implications of adding the Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population) to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk on their activities. If the species is listed, automatic prohibitions under SARA will apply. A recovery process will also be undertaken. Recovery efforts will likely involve the implementation of management measures that may have an impact on current stakeholder activities. Some examples of potential impacts are presented below. This list of measures is not extensive and is not necessarily conclusive of recovery or management measures that will be put in place.

The whale-watching industry and private whale-watching could be subject to stricter regulations. These regulations, which could be similar to the Regulations on Marine Activities in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, could focus on increasing the minimum distance to be maintained between whales and boats, reducing vessel speeds near Beluga Whales, or reducing the amount of time tour vessels can spend near Beluga Whales.

In a similar context, commercial or recreationalvessel traffic could be deviated from its usual routes or forced to follow a more precise navigation corridor. Research vessels could also be required to conform to stricter guidelines since protection of the Beluga Whale could also restrict the kind of research allowed in areas that are deemed vital for this species.

With regards to seismic exploration and oil and gas development, specific and detailed guidelines could be developed: implementing partial or complete exclusion zones, restrictions of exploration and exploitation activities during certain periods of the year, having automated acoustic whale detection systems, qualified marine mammals observers, or any other suitable measure.

The fishing industry could experience restrictions with regard to the use of certain fishing gear, or have limited access to specific sectors according to the time of year. The commercial exploitation of specific preys could be limited or prohibited in sectors of significant abundance.

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Let us know what you think

Adding the St.Lawrence Beluga Whale to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk will lead to the implementation of a series of prohibitions to protect the species, and to the establishment of a recovery process that could have both positive and negative impacts for stakeholders.

It is now your turn to speak up! By answering the following questions before 12 November 2004, you will ensure the federal government has a complete description and understanding of costs, advantages and impacts when considering the addition of the St.Lawrence Beluga Whale to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk.

How to proceed:

·        Answer the questionnaire (removable) in the proper space below or on separate sheets, and send us by mail at the following address:

Species at Risk Coordination Office

Maurice Lamontagne Institute

Fisheries and Oceans Canada

P.O. Box1000

850 route de la Mer

Mont-Joli, Québec

G5H 3Z4

 ·        Or by fax :

(418) 775-0542

·        You can also send us your answers by email at the following address:



Deadline: 12 November 2004

 For questions or comments concerning the Species at Risk Act or concerning this consultation process, please do not hesitate to write (coordinates above) or to communicate with us at no cost:

 1 (877) 775-0848

 Thank you !

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Question 1

Describe your business line or your interest concerning the Beluga Whale (e.g. environment, fishing, tourism, whale watching, navigation, research, etc.)

Question 2

From what you know about the Species at Risk Act, do you think the addition of the Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population) will have positive or perhaps negative impacts on its protection and recovery? If so, how?

Question 3

From what you know about the Species at Risk Act, do you think the addition of the Beluga Whale (St.Lawrence population) to the List of Species at Risk will have positive or negative impacts on your activities? If so, how?

Question 4

On the other hand, do you think that not listing the Beluga Whale would have positive or negative impacts on your activities? If so, how?

Question 5

If you indicated negative impacts, do you have suggestions in order to minimize them?

Question 6

In order for SARA to be really effective, the recovery of species at risk must be a concerted effort, carried out in collaboration with all stakeholders. According to you, how can the stakeholders be better involved?

Question 7

How could you contribute to the recovery of the Beluga Whale as an individual, company or institution? Can you give a few examples of activities?

Question 8

Do you have any other comments or concerns?

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