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Energy East pipeline threatens beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow tweeted this morning about the threat posed to beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River by the Energy East tar sands pipeline.

Beluga whaleThe Toronto Star reports, “A researcher monitoring belugas in the St. Lawrence estuary is warning of a looming ‘catastrophe’ after another difficult calving season for the endangered whale. The belugas have been in a slow population decline for the past decade, according to Robert Michaud, the scientific director of Quebec’s Marine Mammals Research and Education Group. …If the population is to recover, Michaud said there must be a concerted effort to reduce the sources of stress on animals, particularly in areas frequented by beluga mothers and their calves.”

The article highlights, “The latest figures on beluga calves come amid a debate over whether to allow exploratory drilling offshore of Cacouna, Que., near the breeding ground at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. A judge suspended drilling for the TransCanada [Energy East pipeline] oil terminal last Tuesday following objections from environmental groups. …[Michaud says] its construction, along with ‘all the phases that are preliminary to the construction, and then afterward the exploitation of such an activity’ could be detrimental to the whales.”

In its pre-application for the pipeline, TransCanada said, “The Cacouna marine terminal will be located on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River in the immediate vicinity of the existing Port of Gros-Cacouna, QC. The marine terminal will be developed to support the loading of crude carriers which have a capacity of 700,000 to 1.1 million barrels of oil through a two-berth arrangement and a single trestle. These carriers are known as ‘Aframax’ and ‘Suezmax’ respectively.”

Quebec Superior Court Judge Claudine Roy ruled that any seismic testing in the habitat area cannot take place until October 15, the date by which the whales would normally have migrated. This was a huge win in court for the David Suzuki Foundation, Nature Quebec, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Quebec Centre for Environmental Law. But TransCanada has indicated it will resume its drilling as soon as the temporary injunction expires.

To sign a Nature Quebec petition (in French) calling on the Premier of Quebec to implement a permanent prohibition to protect this area, please click here.

The Council of Canadians also believes that the Harper government must take action to protect the whales.

A federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans webpage says, “The St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whale population is listed as threatened and protected under the Species at Risk Act. …Although whaling for belugas has been banned since 1979, there has been no noticeable recovery in the population. A number of factors seem to contribute to the lack of recovery of this species in the St. Lawrence. Among them, pollution, reduced food resources, disturbance by humans and habitat degradation are considered to be the main threats to the recovery of the population. Beluga whales can also be the victim of ship strikes and become entangled in fishing gear.”

We call on Fisheries minister Gail Shea to issue a decree to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans that the St. Lawrence Estuary is a protected zone in order to fulfil her responsibilities under the Species at Risk Act to protect the beluga whales there as a species at risk of extinction. The construction of the Energy East pipeline export terminal on the St. Lawrence River and the protection of the threatened beluga population under the Species at Risk Act are clearly incompatible.

Postscript: Making matters worse, investigative journalist Mike De Souza now reports, “[There are] fresh questions about whether the Canadian government muzzled a top scientist while reviewing the [TransCanada] proposal [for the terminal]. …Internal documents from the fisheries department show that federal scientists have been raising concerns for months, not only about the exploratory work, but also of the proposed oil terminal itself that would service 250-metre long supertankers shipping western Canadian crude overseas. …[But] at least two federal departments, Transport Canada [under navigation protection legislation] and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, gave a green light for the exploratory work, including major drilling and seismic testing in the port of Cacouna, Quebec, in the heart of the critical habitat of threatened St. Lawrence beluga whales. …DFO authorized the drilling work for the Energy East oil terminal in a May 21 letter that said no permits would be required under existing laws protecting fish and endangered species, despite activities that would include drilling 16 wells with two drilling barges within range of the belugas.”

Further reading
Will Harper fail to protect whales for the Energy East pipeline? (April 2014 blog)
Energy East and fracking threaten the St. Lawrence River (February 2014 blog)
Energy East pipeline threatens beluga whales in the St. Lawrence (December 2013 blog)