The Legault and Trudeau governments want to “quadruple” the area of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park in order to better protect the habitat of the beluga, but also other endangered cetacean species that frequent the St. Lawrence estuary. In interview at DutyFederal Minister of the Environment Steven Guilbeault hailed the “collaboration” with Quebec for the protection of marine environments.
Minister Guilbeault and his provincial counterpart Benoit Charette confirmed Friday morning, in Tadoussac, their intention to launch consultations that will lead to the expansion of the marine park, which is already the largest marine protected area in the province. Its total area, which is currently 1245 km², could reach almost 5000 km².
“This project aims to better protect the biodiversity and ecosystems of the St. Lawrence estuary, which make up the habitat of nearly 2,200 species, some of which, like the beluga, are in a precarious situation,” said the two ministers in a rare joint announcement in the environmental field. The duty had already been able to confirm this information earlier this week and several stakeholders related to the Marine Park or the protection of the St. Lawrence had welcomed the project.
“The main objective of the expansion project is to protect the critical habitat of the St. Lawrence beluga, more than 60% of which is currently located outside the limits of the marine park,” they specified in a press release. But that’s not all, since the expansion project “also aims to preserve a privileged feeding ground for several species of whales, some of which are in a precarious situation”.
We are talking here about the fin whale, designated as a “special concern” species under the federal government’s Species at Risk Act, but also the blue whale, which is listed as “endangered”. The population of this last species, which uses the Estuary and the Gulf of St. Lawrence as a feeding area, would number barely 250 mature individuals.
A park of 5000 km2
In interview at Duty, Minister Steven Guilbeault also confirmed that the objective of the two levels of government would be to “quadruple” the area of the marine park, which is currently 1,245 km². This means that the park could have an area of almost 5000 km² within three years. “That’s what we want, but there will be consultations. There is no question of imposing this. We want to work with partners to achieve this goal. »
This very significant increase in the size of the province’s only marine park would mean including all of the beluga’s critical summer habitat. The boundaries of the protected area would thus extend to around L’Isle-aux-Coudres, upstream, and Trois-Pistoles, downstream, including the Cacouna sector, considered a beluga nursery. . This means that the protected territory should reach the south shore of the St. Lawrence, which is not currently the case.
There would be no question of expanding the portion of the park located in the Saguenay River, where it already extends to Sainte-Rose-du-Nord, but the protected territory would probably extend downstream, along the North Shore. In this sector, fin whales and blue whales are frequently observed. The Legault government has already granted, in 2020, the status of “territorial reserves for the purposes of protected areas” to different areas of the estuary which could come to improve the surface area of the marine park.
In addition to extending the boundaries of the park, the two levels of government wish to adapt the protection measures, which include regulations concerning navigation, fisheries and the development of projects. The Marine Park is crossed by the St. Lawrence Seaway and no speed limit is imposed on commercial vessels, only a “voluntary” speed limit for part of the year.
Before deciding on the rules that will govern the future park, Quebec and Ottawa intend to launch consultations with “regional and municipal organizations, as well as all the stakeholders concerned by the project, including the Aboriginal nations, research groups and local businesses to share their perspectives and get their feedback. Subsequently, “a public consultation phase, which will focus in particular on the proposed limits and the protection measures envisaged, will be held”.
Steven Guilbeault welcomed Friday the “collaboration” with his counterpart Benoit Charette in the file. “The Marine Park is an example of collaboration between our two governments for 25 years. This morning’s announcement reinforces this partnership and our common desire to continue to move forward on the issue of conservation in Quebec. It bodes well for the future,” he said in an interview with Duty.
“The Government of Quebec is proud of this unique partnership with the federal government, which will notably make it possible to improve the protection of marine mammals living in the St. Lawrence estuary, such as the beluga, which is a species emblematic of the fragility of this habitat. The knowledge acquired in recent years sends a clear signal of what we must do to protect it,” added Quebec Environment Minister Benoit Charette.
Moreover, Minister Guilbeault is not closing the door to other measures to protect the habitat of the beluga, the only resident cetacean of the St. Lawrence. “Our desire to increase the protection of beluga habitat is very clear. If more needs to be done, we can look at that,” he said. It must be said that if belugas spend a good part of the year in the estuary, their winter habitat would probably be concentrated in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, particularly along the North Shore and around the island of Anticosti. Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently piloting a study to try to clarify this critical habitat.
Decline of the beluga
Beluga whale “critical habitat”, the territory essential to the survival and recovery of the species, has only been legally protected since 2016. This should have been done in 2012, under federal legislation. Under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, however, the government did not do this.
It must be said that at the time, TransCanada (now TC Energy) wanted to build a port to export tar sands oil in Cacouna, as part of the Energy East pipeline project. This port would have been built in a critical sector for females and very young belugas.
Despite the abandonment of this project, several threats still exist for the species, including noise pollution, disturbance by navigation, the decline of their prey and global warming. The population is declining year after year. Today it comprises less than 900 individuals. “Since the 2000s, we have also observed a critical and unexplained increase in mortality among newborns as well as among females of reproductive age, which suggests an acceleration in the decline of the beluga in the years to come” , recognized Friday Quebec and Ottawa.