Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), St. Lawrence Estuary population: recovery strategy

Official title: Recovery Strategy for the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas), St. Lawrence Estuary Population in Canada

Species at Risk Act recovery strategy series, recovery strategy for the Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary population in Canada.

Species at Risk Act
Recovery strategy series

The Beluga Whale

Recommended citation:

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). 2012. Recovery Strategy for the beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary population in Canada. Species at Risk Act (SARA) Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. 88 pp + X pp.

Additional copies:

Additional copies can be downloaded from the Species at Risk Act Public Registry.

Cover illustration:

Paule de Margerie

Également disponible en français sous le titre : « Programme de rétablissement du béluga (Delphinapterus leucas), population de l'estuaire du Saint-Laurent au Canada »

© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, 2012. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-100-19992-4
Catalogue no: En3-4/128-2012E-PDF

Content (excluding the illustrations) may be used without permission, with appropriate credit to the source.


Canada's Minister of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is the competent minister under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) for aquatic species. Section 37 of SARA requires the competent minister to prepare recovery strategies for listed species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened. The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population was listed as threatened under SARA in May 2005. The development of this recovery strategy was headed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada – Quebec Region, in collaboration with Parks Canada, Environment Canada, provincial agencies, and several stakeholders. This strategy meets SARA requirements in terms of content and process (Sections 39–41).

Successful recovery of this species will depend on the commitment and cooperation of the many different stakeholders involved in implementing the recommendations put forward under this strategy. It will not be the sole responsibility of Fisheries and Oceans Canada or any other agency. In the spirit of the National Accord for the Protection of Species at Risk, the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans invites all Canadians to join DFO in supporting and implementing this strategy for the benefit of the species and Canadian society as a whole. DFO will support the implementation of this strategy as far as possible, given the available resources and its overall responsibility for protecting species at risk. Other jurisdictions and agencies will participate in implementing the strategy according to their respective policies, allocated resources, priorities, and budgetary constraints.

The goals, objectives, and recovery approaches identified in the strategy are based on the best available knowledge, and are subject to change should new information emerge. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans will prepare a progress report within five years. This strategy will be complemented by one or more action plans that will provide details on specific recovery measures to be taken to help protect the species. The Minister of Fisheries and Oceans will take steps to ensure that Canadians who are concerned about or affected by these measures will be consulted whenever and wherever possible.

In 1983, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) designated the St. Lawrence beluga population as endangered due to the significant decline in numbers caused by intensive hunting, which was finally banned in 1979. In 1986, Fisheries and Oceans Canada set up the Ad Hoc Committee for the conservation of the St. Lawrence beluga, the objectives of which were to identify factors that threatened the population's survival and to make recommendations to favour its recovery. Based on the Committee's report, an interdepartmental Action Plan was drawn up to ensure the survival of the belugas. This project was carried out jointly by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Environment Canada from 1988 to 1993 as part of the St. Lawrence Action Plan (SLAP), with the following objectives: to minimize disturbance to the beluga population, to combat the discharge and spread of toxic chemical products, and to conduct further research on the beluga. A fourth objective was added in 1989: to facilitate public access to information in order to raise awareness in Canada and Quebec of the St. Lawrence beluga. Conservation and protection of Recovery strategy of the St. Lawrence beluga – proposed 2011 the St. Lawrence ecosystem continued under St. Lawrence Vision 2000 and the St. Lawrence Plan for Sustainable Development 2005–2010.

In 1994, DFO and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) helped establish a Recovery Team for the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population. The team included members from federal and provincial departments as well as non-governmental organizations, and its mandate was to develop a recovery plan for this population. This plan was published in December 1995 (DFO and WWF, 1995).

In 1996, the Beluga Committee was formed to implement and oversee the St. Lawrence Beluga Recovery Plan. In 1997, COSEWIC reassessed and confirmed the endangered status of the St. Lawrence Estuary belugas. In 1998, the Beluga Committee published the first status report on the implementation of the St. Lawrence Beluga Recovery Plan (DFO and WWF, 1998).

The Beluga Committee met several times in 2002 and 2003 to update the available information on the St. Lawrence beluga and revise the recommendations of the 1995 recovery plan. In May 2004, COSEWIC revised the status of the St. Lawrence beluga population from endangered to threatened following the adoption of new quantitative classification criteria in line with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In 2005, DFO assembled a team of beluga specialists to establish the evaluation criteria required to define a recovered population and to gather scientific recommendations on the recovery potential of the different beluga populations in Canada (DFO, 2005a, b; Lawson et al., 2006).

When the Species at Risk Act came into effect, the St. Lawrence beluga Recovery Team was formed and mandated to develop a recovery strategy, as required by the Act. This recovery strategy encompasses all the initiatives taken since 1983 for the recovery of the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population. It was developed with the cooperation or consultation of government agencies, aboriginal organizations, environmental groups, and industry representatives.


DFO would like to thank Andréanne Demers, Hugues Bouchard, Jacinthe Beauchamp, and Paule de Margerie for producing this document. It would also like to acknowledge the members of the St. Lawrence beluga Recovery Team (Appendix 1) for their efforts to provide the authors with information, advice, and recommendations along the way. The Department would also like to thank Gilles Fortin of DFO for his mapping expertise.

DFO would also like to thank the Government of Quebec and the staff of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park for their dedication to the recovery of the St. Lawrence beluga. Finally, DFO would like to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of everyone who provided comments on this document.

Executive summary

The beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) population in the St. Lawrence Estuary was greatly reduced by hunting, which was finally banned in the St. Lawrence in 1979. In May 2005, this beluga population was officially listed as a threatened species on SARA's List of Wildlife Species at Risk.

Aside from past hunting, ten threats to the recovery of the St. Lawrence beluga population have been identified in this strategy. Four threaten the population as a whole: contaminants, anthropogenic disturbances, reduction in prey availability and quality, and other degradation of habitat. Three threats can disturb or cause the death of a number of individual whales annually: ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and scientific research activities. Finally, three occasional threats can hinder the recovery of the St. Lawrence belugas: the discharge of toxic substances, harmful algal blooms, and epizootic diseases.

Recovery of the St. Lawrence beluga population is feasible, the objective being a long-term increase in population to 7,070 individuals, or 70% of its historical size. At an optimal population growth rate of 4%, the long-term population objective can be reached by the 2050s. At the current 1% growth rate, this will take until 2100. An intermediate objective of 1,000 mature individuals was also established. The current population is estimated at approximately 1,100 individuals. Six recovery objectives have been identified to reach population objectives:

  1. Reduce contaminants in belugas, their prey, and their habitat
  2. Reduce anthropogenic disturbances
  3. Ensure adequate and accessible food supplies
  4. Mitigate the effects of other threats to population recovery
  5. Protect the beluga habitat in its entire distribution range
  6. Ensure regular monitoring of the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population.

Female belugas and their calves show strong site fidelity for their summering habitat, and this is a fundamental issue in the survival and recovery of this population. The critical habitat, which includes the Upper Estuary, the Saguenay River up to Sainte-Marguerite Bay, and the southern channel of the Lower Estuary, supports the vital functions of calving and rearing of the young. A schedule of the studies required to complete the identification of the critical habitat is included.

This present recovery strategy is a follow-up to the 1995 St. Lawrence Beluga Whale Recovery Plan and may be revised and reposted to the Species at Risk Public Registry as new information is acquired or circumstances change.

Recovery feasibility

Recovery of St. Lawrence Estuary beluga is considered feasible because the four criteria for the technical and biological feasibility of recovery are met.

  1. Individuals of the wildlife species that are capable of reproduction are available now or in the foreseeable future to sustain the population or improve its abundance.

    If direct measures are implemented to eliminate or mitigate current threats, the actual number of belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary should be sufficient to allow population growth.

  2. Sufficient suitable habitat is available to support the population or could be made available through habitat management or restoration.

    Although some areas show some degradation, there appears to be sufficient habitat available, as the current population does not use the entirety of its historical distribution area. In theory, therefore, additional habitat for population growth is available.

  3. Significant threats to the species or its habitat may be avoided or mitigated.

    Although it is impossible at this point to precisely determine the impact of individual threats and their interactions on the recovery of St. Lawrence belugas, several potential threats have been identified. Since the last recovery plan was published in 1995, a number of conservation measures have been implemented. In addition, as part of this recovery program, other measures have been put forward to reduce the impact of human activity on this population. Even though some of these measures have not proven completely effective, they are continuously being assessed and improved.

  4. Recovery techniques exist to achieve the population and distribution objectives or can be expected to be developed within a reasonable timeframe.

    The decontamination methods exist and aquatic sites have been cleaned up. Methods are also available to restore or mitigate the impacts of development on the prey habitats of belugas. Several techniques and protocols are available to reduce the impact of certain threats such as marine traffic disturbance and entanglement in fishing gear.

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