The “Sea Canary” Sings the Blues

The beluga whales of Canada’s St. Lawrence River have endured a lot over the years, but they’re still around, and still controversial

With its enigmatic "smile" and close proximity to humans, the St. Lawrence beluga is an attention-getting poster animal. Unlike the 80,000 to 100,000 belugas living farther north, the St. Lawrence beluga doesn't face predators such as orcas and polar bears, and it isn't hunted by people. But Canada classifies this fascinating creature as endangered, and its numbers don't seem to be increasing at a normal rate. St. Lawrence belugas show an alarming incidence of cancer, and the most likely cause is pollution by sewage, pesticides and industrial contaminants that accumulate in sediments where the whales feed.

In years past, St. Lawrence belugas were slaughtered by whalers for their oil and skin, and killed by fishermen who blamed them — mistakenly, as it turns out — for decimating cod and other commercially valuable fish stocks. Today scientists do not agree on the whales' numbers or status. The animals are probably better off today than they were a decade ago, but environmentalists fear that politics and complacency may defeat the promise of an even better future.

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