Vancouver Aquarium Scientist Studies The Impact of Underwater Noise on Endangered St. Lawrence Belugas

Vancouver, BC – Is critical acoustic communication between endangered beluga calves and their mothers drowned out by too much noise in the St. Lawrence Estuary? That’s the question Dr. Valeria Vergara, research scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, is seeking to answer as she returns from a summer of fieldwork studying this vulnerable population of whales.

The Canadian government just announced it is taking action to protect the St. Lawrence belugas, by officially listing them as endangered. The circumstances are dire, which is why Vergara, research scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, spent several weeks this summer using paired technologies to study the at-risk animals.

Once numbering up to 10,000, there are now fewer than 900 belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary, and that number is slipping. Despite years of work to reduce the whales’ exposure to chemicals in the commercial seaway and the creation of protected areas for their habitat, the whales are still dying, and an alarming number of them are newborn calves. In 2010, eight dead newborns were found; in 2012, there were 16. So far this year, four beluga calves have been found stranded along the St. Lawrence. A synergy of factors has been suggested for the whales’ worrying decline, including pollution, habitat degradation, reduced food resources, and underwater noise.

It’s the latter that Dr. Vergara is most interested in. In her doctoral study, Vergara identified biologically critical calls deemed “contact calls” used in vocal exchanges between mothers and calves, and has since confirmed the presence of these calls in several wild populations. This summer, she worked with scientists at the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) in Quebec, to try and determine if underwater noise introduced by human activities interferes with the acoustic communication between beluga mothers and their newborn calves, and their ability to regain contact after separations.

“This is a species that is so profoundly social; one in which calves depend on their mothers for so long and so strongly, that their ability to stay in contact is key,” said Vergara. “In these dark and turbid waters, that ability is an acoustic one.” The team listened in on the belugas’ underwater world with a hydrophone while simultaneously observing them from the air with a small, quiet drone to get a good view of their behaviour. Pairing these two technologies gives an extraordinary level of detail.

“For the first time ever we are attempting to understand these animals from the air and from below the surface of the water at the same time,” Vergara said. The aim is to gather data that will help aid in population recovery and conservation.

Coastal Ocean Research Institute

The Coastal Ocean Research Institute was established by the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre to measure and monitor the health of coastal ecosystems. The Research Institute is grateful for its generous founding partners the Sitka Foundation and North Growth Foundation.

Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre
The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a non-profit society dedicated to the conservation of aquatic life.

Founded in 1985 and based in Tadoussac, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals is a non-profit organization dedicated to scientific research on the whales of the St. Lawrence and education for the sake of marine conservation.

Note to editors/producers: footage and photos of beluga research is available.

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April Penney
Ocean Wise