After word broke that beluga whales in the area have seen a sharp decline in recent years, the energy company TransCanada halted work on a plan to develop a massive supertanker port in the St. Lawrence River to ferry crude oil from its proposed Energy East pipeline.
The news came just hours after the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) released a list of wildlife species at risk, with belugas at the forefront. Once numbering as high as 10,000 individuals, the population, which lives all year in the polluted waterway, was decimated by whalers until beluga hunting was banned 1979. Now, their population hovers at just about 1,000 animals - a fact that led COSEWIC to assess them as endangered.
Shortly after, TransCanada announced that its port plans for a site at Cacouna, on Quebec's south shore would be scrapped for now. The terminal would have shipped crude oil from Alberta on 900-foot tankers that would come in and out of the site every week. For belugas - a sensitive species that relies on sound to communicate underwater - the presence of more and louder ships could be disastrous.
Energy East pipeline spokesman Tim Duboyce said in a statement:
"As a company that cares about nature and environmental stewardship, we have repeated many times our commitment to the laws and regulations in the various federal and provincial jurisdictions where we operate. That applies to the situation of beluga whales in Quebec. We are standing down on any further work at Cacouna, in order to analyze the recommendation, assess any impacts from Energy East, and review all viable options as we look ahead."
While the move can be seen as a win for whales, it's worth noting that the belugas haven't affected TransCanada's larger project - the proposed $10 billion [USD] Energy East Pipeline. Often described as an alternative to the Keystone XL pipeline (another TransCanada project), the Energy East pipeline would ferry 1.1 million barrels of crude oil per day and be the longest pipeline in North America. In October, Bloomberg called the plan "Keystone on steroids, more than twice as long and carrying a third more crude."
Both proposed pipelines pose major threats to the wildlife around them - possible oil spills, habitat destruction from development and even carbon emissions that would aggravate climate change pose a huge problem for many species. While St. Lawrence belugas may be safe for now, with pipelines on the horizon the future for many species is in the balance.