Belugas act as metric for environmental health

The waters of the Great Lakes Basin face many environmental threats, the greatest of which is pollution from chemical production, agricultural runoff, and industrial development. The health of the Great Lakes can be measured in many ways. One of the most unusual and telling is by observing the small isolated population of beluga whales living in the estuary of the St. Lawrence River in Canada.

TRANSCRIPT

GREAT LAKES BASIN IS THE LARGEST FRESHWATER ENVIRONMENT IN THE WORLD, WITH A SURFACE COVERING ALMOST 95 MILLION SQUARE MILES.

THE WATERS OF THE GREAT LAKES FACE MANY ENVIRONMENTAL THREATS, THE GREATEST OF WHICH IS POLLUTION FROM CHEMICAL PRODUCTION, AGRICULTURAL RUNOFF, AND INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT.

THE HEALTH OF THE GREAT LAKES CAN BE MEASURED IN MANY WAYS, BUT ONE OF THE MOST UNUSUAL AND TELLING IS BY OBSERVING THE SMALL, ISOLATED POPULATION OF BELUGA WHALES THAT LIVE IN THE ESTUARY OF THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER IN CANADA.

HERE'S THE STORY.

AT THE SHEDD AQUARIUM, A CROWD GATHERS TO WATCH TRAINERS INTERACT WITH A GROUP OF RARE AND UNIQUE MARINE MAMMALS -- BELUGA WHALES.

[ SQUEAKING ]

BELUGAS ARE CALLED THE CANARIES OF THE SEA BECAUSE OF THEIR REALLY COOL VOCALIZATIONS.

BUT IN A LOT OF WAYS FOR THE GREAT LAKES AND ST. LAWRENCE WATERSHED, THEY'RE KIND OF THE CANARY IN THE COAL MINE IN THE FACT THAT THEY'RE A REALLY, REALLY GREAT REFLECTION OF THE HEALTH OF THE SYSTEM ITSELF.

BELUGAS DO NOT LIVE WITHIN THE FIVE GREAT LAKES THEMSELVES BUT WITHIN THE GREAT LAKES WATERSHED IN THE ESTUARY NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER.

THE BELUGA'S NATURAL HABITAT IS CONNECTED TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT LAKES THROUGH THE RIVER, AND A SMALL, ISOLATED POPULATION OF BELUGA WHALES HAS EXISTED IN THE ESTUARY SINCE THE END OF THE ICE AGE.

BECAUSE THEY ARE A LONG-LIVED ANIMAL, THEIR STORY IS VERY RICH AND FULL OF LEARNING FOR US.

BELUGAS IN THE ST. LAWRENCE WERE ONCE HUNTED TO THE BRINK OF EXTINCTION.

LOCAL FISHERMEN THOUGHT THE WHALES WERE A THREAT TO THEIR LIVELIHOOD, AND THEIR DISTINCTIVE WHITE SKIN WAS PRIZED AS A SOURCE OF LEATHER FOR SHOELACES.

COMMERCIAL HUNTING OF BELUGAS ENDED IN 1979, AND FOR SEVERAL DECADES, THE POPULATION OF BELUGAS IN THE ST. LAWRENCE WAS ON THE RISE.

BUT THE POPULATION DECLINED AGAIN AS BELUGAS FACED A NEW SET OF THREATS.

TODAY, THERE ARE ONLY ABOUT 900 BELUGAS LEFT IN THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER.

IN ORDER TO BE ABLE TO PROTECT BELUGA, WE NEED FIRST TO UNDERSTAND BELUGA WHALES, AND THIS IS NOT A TRIVIAL TASK.

WHILE WE'RE TRYING TO UNDERSTAND BELUGA WHALE, WE ARE UNDERSTANDING THE ECOSYSTEM AS A WHOLE.

[ WHALE CALLING ]

BELUGAS ARE A BIOINDICATOR.

THE HEALTH OF THEIR POPULATION TELLS US A LOT ABOUT THE HEALTH OF THE WATER THEY LIVE IN AND SERVES AS A REMINDER THAT HUMAN ACTIONS IN ONE PART OF THE GREAT LAKES WATERSHED CAN HAVE SEVERE CONSEQUENCES IN ANOTHER PART.

WHATEVER HAVE BEEN DUMPED IN THE GREAT LAKES OVER THE PAST DECADES EVENTUALLY WILL GET IN THE ST. LAWRENCE ESTUARY, IN THE FOOD CHAIN THERE, AND THE BELUGA WHALES.

A LOT OF TIMES, WE HAVE THIS 'OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND' ATTITUDE, WHERE HOUSEHOLD CLEANING PRODUCTS OR PESTICIDES OR OTHER THINGS THAT WE'RE USING AS INDIVIDUAL CONSUMERS -- WE THINK ABOUT THEIR APPLICATION BUT NOT THE END OF THEIR LIFE.

AND EVERYTHING COLLECTS DOWNSTREAM, AND THE BELUGAS THAT LIVE IN THE ST. LAWRENCE ARE LITERALLY DOWNSTREAM FROM US IN THE GREAT LAKES.

THE ENTIRE SYSTEM IS CONNECTED.

THERE'S A LOT OF GUNK THAT THEY'RE INGESTING, AND ALL THAT IS PUT INTO THE WATER SUPPLY FROM ALL OVER THE GREAT LAKES BASIN.

IT IS BELIEVED THAT A BUILDUP OF TOXIC CHEMICALS IN THE BELUGA'S SYSTEM IS CAUSING INCREASED INCIDENCES OF CANCER AND CALF MORTALITY.

BELUGAS IN THE WILD CAN BE ELUSIVE, AND EXAMINING THE WHALES TO FIND OUT WHAT IS CAUSING THEM TO DISAPPEAR IS VERY DIFFICULT.

THAT'S WHERE THE TRAINING AT THE SHEDD AQUARIUM COMES IN.

THE BELUGAS AT THE AQUARIUM ARE TRAINED TO ASSIST HUMANS IN GATHERING VITAL INFORMATION ABOUT THEM.

THEY'RE TRAINED TO PUT THEIR TAIL IN THE TRAINER'S LAP SO WE CAN TAKE VOLUNTARY BLOOD SAMPLES.

THEY'RE TRAINED TO ALLOW US TO PASS A TUBE INTO THEIR STOMACH TO TAKE GASTRIC SAMPLES.

SO WE CAN TAKE THE INFORMATION THAT WE LEARN HERE AND MAKE THAT AVAILABLE TO PEOPLE LIKE OTHER FIELD BIOLOGISTS.

BIOLOGISTS WHO WILL USE THE INFORMATION GATHERED AT THE SHEDD TO HELP RESTORE THE BELUGA POPULATION IN THE ST. LAWRENCE RIVER.

THE BELUGAS AT THE SHEDD AQUARIUM SERVE AS A REMINDER THAT ALL LIFE IN THE GREAT LAKES IS CONNECTED AND HUMAN ACTIONS CAN HAVE GRAVE CONSEQUENCES.

THE WORST WOULD BE THAT THEY DISAPPEAR WITHOUT US UNDERSTANDING WHAT WENT ON.

MY HOPE FOR THE FUTURE IS THAT WE UNDERSTAND AND WE TAKE LESSONS FROM BELUGA WHALES.

I DON'T KNOW IF WE WILL BE ABLE TO SAVE BELUGA WHALES.

I HOPE WE WILL.

[ WHALE CALLING ]