Full-grown beluga whales are pure white, friendly giants that often reach 15 feet in length, weigh nearly 3,000 lb. and ordinarily live for 30 years or
more. They have articulated heads that allow them to look down and from side to side, which they do constantly because they seem to be endlessly curious about what goes on around them. They frequently approach small boats on the St. Lawrence River and keep the occupants company for periods of up to half an hour, swimming alongside and playing with such floating objects as buoys, which they poke with their noses. The whales also like to swim inshore, and as a result, hunters along the shore have in the past shot them with rifles for their hides and oil, and sometimes for sport.
The federal government put a stop to the practice in 1979. But the beluga are still dying—the victims of deadly poisons in the polluted river that for them has become a war zone. It is also the source of drinking water for more than three million Quebecers.
Systems: The plight of the beluga, whose numbers have dwindled to about 500 from as many as 5,000 at the turn of the century, has come to symbolize the misfortunes of the historic 745-mile waterway itself. Every day, Quebec, Ontario and U.S. industries and municipalities dump thousands of tons of solid wastes, including human waste, and hazardous chemicals into the river. Environmental critics say that some parts of the river have become virtual sewers. Last November, Hugh Dobson,
a water-chemistry scientist with the federally funded Burlington, Ont.-based Canada Centre for Inland Waters, said in a Montreal interview that the 50-year-old process of chlorinating drinking water was no longer adequate to deal with St. Lawrence pollution levels. Governments, said Dobson, must find new purification systems “or there could be big trouble.” Said Bruce McKay, a marine pollution specialist with the Greenpeace environmental organization in Montreal: “People in Montreal are ingesting small amounts of a wide range of contaminants every time they drink tap water from the St. Lawrence. We just do not know what the impact is going to be on our health in the long nm.”
In recent years, Ottawa and Quebec City have announced multimillion-dollar programs to clean up the river. Still, some environmentalists question the effectiveness of those projects. For his part, McKay said that inadequate or misapplied antipollution laws and political squabbling between Quebec City and Ottawa have left him “quite discouraged” about the prospects of reviving the St. Lawrence. Said McKay: “I think the river may have been irreparably harmed.”
Despite the serious level of pollution in the St. Lawrence, Quebec government officials insist that most Quebec communities—including the scores of municipalities that draw their water from the St. Lawrence—do not have problems with drinking water. But André Har-
vey, director general of the water resources department of the Quebec environment ministry, admitted that most of the province’s small municipalities do not carry out comprehensive tests of water quality. Added Henri Durocher, head of the drinking-water division of the same department: “Just because water is polluted does not mean it is dangerous. You can purify just about any water.”
Still, McKay and other government and private agency experts say that it has so far been impossible to evaluate the condition of the St.
Lawrence accurately for two principal reasons. Firstly, they say, the river became the subject of widespread environmental concern only about five years ago, which means, McKay said, that until the ecological history of the St. Lawrence is better understood, “there is nothing to compare it to. How many species that we never catalogued became extinct in the past 50 years?” Secondly, McKay and others say that no one has been able to establish clearcut relationships between animal diseases—and possibly human ones as well—and the more than 800 waste chemicals from the 2,000 Quebec industries that have been identified as contributing to pollution of the St. Lawrence.
Cancer: However, the evidence is ominous. The federal Environmental Protection Act defines concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) of greater than 50 parts per million as dangerous to human health. PCBs are suspected of causing cancer in humans and of being responsible for birth defects in babies. Yet a shrew, a small, mouselike animal, captured late last summer near the Akwesasne Indian reserve, 110 km southwest of Montreal, contained 11,522 parts per million of PCBs, and frogs in the region often give read-
ings of 2,000 parts per million. Pierre Béland, a marine biologist who works for the privately funded St. Lawrence National Institute of Ecotoxicology at Rimouski, Que., said that most of the dead beluga whales he has examined contained PCB concentrations ranging from six to 800 parts per million.
In fact, it was the number of dead whales drifting ashore along the banks of the St. Lawrence that first gave rise to general concern about the condition of the river. Since 1978, the Quebec government has set aside $6.2 billion to install and improve sewage treatment facilities in the province. As a result, 61 new sewage treatment plants are expected
to be in service in communities along the St. Lawrence River by 1993. As well, the plant that currently handles only about half of the Montreal Urban Community’s sewage is being expanded and, by 1992, will be treating all of the city’s sewage. Said Jacques Simon, assistant director of urban waste water treatment for Environment Quebec: “In another five years, there will be no municipalities with populations greater than 2,000 dumping directly into the river. That’s progress.”
For its part, Ottawa in 1988 set aside $110
million for a pollution research program at Environment Canada’s Montreal-based St. Lawrence Centre. The program’s objective: to find ways of reducing, by 90 per centwithin five years, the amount of liquid toxic waste being dumped into the St. Lawrence by the 50 industrial firms that, the government believes, are the biggest Quebec polluters of the river.
At the same time that Ottawa launched its program, Quebec announced one of its own, aimed at cutting emissions from 630 industrial plants by 75 per cent within a decade. But Greenpeace’s McKay complained in a letter to Quebec Environment Minister Pierre Paradis last month that only $4 million had been
allocated so far for the Quebec program, and that the monitoring and enforcement programs outlined by the province were “hopelessly inadequate.”
For his part, biologist Béland is involved in a grim research project. He collects the carcasses of dead whales, seals and dolphins from beaches along the St. Lawrence in an effort to determine how the animals died and what killed them. “We have found tumors at a rate 10 times what one finds in whales elsewhere,” said Béland. “We find problems with their
digestive systems, specifically ulcers in the stomach and the intestines. We find animals with ulcers, emphysema and pneumonia. We have had a few cases where the same animal has had pneumonia, hepatitis, stomach ulcers and skin diseases, suggesting that its immune system was not functioning properly. We had an animal that died of a tumor of the testicle, which must have caused it great pain.” He added, “You find diseases in an animal less than two years old and it is pathetic.” Campaign: Béland and his colleagues at Rimouski’s Institute of Ecotoxicology are studying live beluga as well. Last year, they mounted an Adopt-a-Beluga campaign and persuaded 47 corporations and groups to pay $5,000 each to help protect the animals. They spent the $235,000 to buy equipment, including a 26-foot boat that is based at Tadoussac, 190 km northeast of Quebec City, where the Saguenay River empties into the St. Lawrence.
Next summer, institute scientists Robert Michaud and Danielle Lefebvre say that they will resume projects aimed at trying to relate the sounds beluga make to their behavior. The researchers also plan to count the number of young whales in an effort to
determine how rapidly the beluga population is changing. “We know between 80 and 100 whales individually,” said Béland. “We have given them names like Alpha, Slash and Walter the Waiter, and many come to see us and play with the boat. They have this sort of smile on their faces. For us, it has become almost a personal tragedy, because we spend so much time on the beaches collecting those dead animals. You always wonder, ‘Will I find one of the animals I know on the beach next week?’ ”
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