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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bombing Belugas

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood talks with Pierre Beland who is a senior research scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Eco-Toxicology in Montreal, Canada. Mr. Beland worries about the decline of large mammals, noting that the St. Lawrence River, now home to the surviving 500 Beluga whales, supported 10,000 whales less than a century ago. Some of these whales were actually bombed and killed by the Canadian government to keep the river's fish for humans. Beland's book is Beluga: A Farewell to Whales.


(Whale songs)

CURWOOD: These are songs of Beluga whales recorded on Canada's St. Lawrence River.

(Whale songs continue)

CURWOOD: As whales go, your average Beluga is small, even though it weighs in at about a ton and is 15 feet long. Beluga's have several easily identifiable traits: they're white, they have a large bulb on the top of their heads. They're very inquisitive. And they have a wonderful smile. A hundred years ago there were between 5,000 and 10,000 Beluga whales living in what's now called the St. Lawrence Seaway. Today only about 500 survive. We know a lot about Beluga's largely because of the work of Pierre Beland. A senior research scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Ecotoxicology, Mr. Beland has been studying the mammals for more than 15 years. In his new book Beluga: A Farewell to Whales, Mr. Beland explains that the Canadian government had a direct hand in the decline of the Beluga population. Earlier in this century, the fishing industry blamed whales for declines in fish stocks, and so, he says, the government actually declared war on the Belugas.

BELAND: Well it was, it was a war, because the first thing the government did was to give a bounty to anybody who would bring back the flukes of a Beluga whale, he would get $15. But that was not enough, and then someone had a very good idea, to convince the government that the way to go about killing Belugas was to bomb them from the air.

CURWOOD: Bomb Belugas from the air?

BELAND: Bomb the whales from the air. And so this person convinced the government to give him money so he could fly with airplanes, and they would manufacture their own bombs. It was really amazing. They would have canisters, they would load dynamite in the canisters, and put a fuse, a kind of mesh that would extend that and light that in the last minute and drop it o a pod of Belugas.

CURWOOD: Ohhh. And so how many Belugas survived all of this?

BELAND: It's hard to tell how many were killed. During the year of the bounties, they paid bounties and the, for the equivalent of about 25,000 whales. Obviously they were not all killed at the same time. They were killed over a number of years at the rate of sometimes up to 700 a year. But the total number of whales that you could find in the river in a year was estimated to be, at the turn of the century, 5,000 to 10,000. And it's from that stock of whales that bounties were collected. But it turned out that by 1980 or so, when we started working on the Beluga whales, we could only estimate that there were 500 animals left. So something happened in between. Obviously the bounty and the bombing and all that reduced the population. But something else must have happened also after the second World War.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about what has happened to the whales after the second World War. They've been the subject of a lot of research involving industrial chemicals and pollution. Correct?

BELAND: Exactly. And that stems from exactly this first observation we made back in 1982. Daniel Marcineau and I, when we were called to that first carcass of a Beluga by the shore of the St. Lawrence, we collected tissues from the animal at the time. We sent those to the lab, and the results came back showing that the animal was loaded with chemicals. Pesticides like DDT, for example, and industrial chemicals like PCBs. Very high levels. Now, these chemicals did not exist in the 1920s. These chemicals were introduced in the late 30s, and DDT, for example, was introduced into Canada and the St. Lawrence in 1948. So the accumulation of what we were finding in 1982 must have started after the second World War. And those chemicals are known for their effects on health and their effects on reproduction. So our hypothesis was that those chemicals were responsible for the second wave of drastic reduction in the Beluga population in the St. Lawrence.

CURWOOD: Now, how does the health of the Belugas in the St. Lawrence compare to Belugas elsewhere in the world?

BELAND: If you look at cancer, the Beluga whale of the St. Lawrence has the highest rate of cancer of any animal that lives on this planet, even higher a rate of cancer than in humans.

CURWOOD: Wow, what's that rate?

BELAND: One third of the dead Belugas that we have autopsied have a tumor, and the majority of those tumors are cancer. And if you look at all the whales autopsied by various researchers around the world, from all the oceans, from all countries, about one half of all the cancers identified come from those 85 Belugas we've looked at. So out of hundreds and hundreds of whales, half of the cancers come from the Belugas. So it's a very, very striking result.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering, what's being done to clean up the St. Lawrence?

BELAND: Many efforts have been started some years ago. You have to understand that the St. Lawrence is the exit for the Great Lakes, and most of the chemicals that we found in our whales came from the Great Lakes. In 1972 Canada and the US signed an agreement, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. This was a major effort at cleaning up the Great Lakes, getting rid of toxic chemicals, and this has improved the whole basin. First the Great Lakes and then the St. Lawrence. And later on there was another equivalent program started up for the St. Lawrence itself. And presently the levels of chemicals, like PCBs, DDT and other toxic chemicals in the fish, in the birds and all the biota in the lakes, and in the river, has decreased compared to what it was in the 60s. And we -- the only thing we can hope is that the same decrease will occur in Beluga whales in time.

CURWOOD: Do you think it will come soon enough? Your book is called Beluga: A Farewell to Whales. It seems that you don't think they'll be around.

BELAND: The meaning of that title is, there are several meanings to it. One of them is that I think Belugas in the St. Lawrence will survive me. I will die before the last one disappears unless, you know, something really drastic occurs. But I'm thinking of this problem in terms of wildlife in general, of large animals trying to exist as wildlife on this planet. While the human population is increasing, while our main preoccupation is about ourselves, is about finding jobs, is about developing resources, is about cutting down forests, exploiting mines, without really thinking about what will happen to all this wildlife. So in that sense I think if we do not change our way of doing things on the long term, large animals on this planet do not have much of a future.

CURWOOD: Pierre Beland is a senior research scientist at the St. Lawrence National Institution of Ecotoxicology in Montreal. His book is called Beluga: A Farewell to Whales.



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