September 21, 2012
Dead baby belugas mystify experts
By Brian Daly, QMI Agency
MONTREAL - At least 15 dead baby beluga whales have washed up on the shores of the lower St. Lawrence River since July, leaving scientists mystified.
University of Montreal animal specialists, who have been monitoring belugas for 30 years, suspect environmental toxins but say they can't be sure of the cause.
"Usually, there are up to three beluga calf carcasses each summer," said Dr. Stephane Lair, a veterinary scientist at the university.
"This figure has been increasing since 2008 and it reached nine calves in 2010. This year, the number is up 60% and the birthing season isn't over yet."
A federal fisheries spokeswoman told QMI Agency Friday that her department is monitoring the situation and is awaiting autopsy results from Lair's team.
An additional 12 to 15 adult beluga whale carcasses have washed up in the lower St. Lawrence this year, says Lair, though he adds the dead calves are of greater concern.
He said three calf carcasses examined this summer showed no signs of injury or damage that might indicate an infectious disease. This suggests they might have died from malnutrition or dehydration, he added.
"Obviously, they were separated from their mothers," said Lair. "They were too weak or intoxicated? We don't know the answer yet."
Researchers are also examining what could be a key clue - thousands of dead fish and crustaceans that might indicate the presence of bloom algae that produces neurotoxins.
There's also the possibility that manmade contaminants have been building up in belugas' bodies, affecting reproduction.
Canada discontinued commercial whaling in 1972, and hunting for belugas in the St. Lawrence for any reason was banned in 1979.
Researchers estimate there are about 1,000 St. Lawrence belugas, and Lair says the population isn't recovering quickly enough to return to pre-hunt levels.