The purpose of this proposed marine protected area is to ensure the long-term conservation and protection of marine mammals that are year-round residents of the St. Lawrence estuary (beluga whale and harbour seal) or seasonal migrants (blue whale), as well as their habitats and food resources. The area covered by the proposed marine protected area totals approximately 6,000 km2 and corresponds to the summer range of the beluga whale, to the large majority of sites used by the harbour seal population of the St. Lawrence Estuary, and to large blue whale feeding grounds. It coincides with the part of the St. Lawrence in which pressure on marine mammals is the highest.
The marine protected area is adjacent to the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, a national marine conservation area created in 1998. It does not include the territory of the marine park, but is complementary to it.
The St. Lawrence Estuary, an essential ecosystem
The St. Lawrence Estuary contains high concentrations of krill and capelin, making it a feeding ground of critical importance for many species of marine mammals. Every year, large numbers of cetaceans, including large whales, migrate to the area to feed and build up their energy reserves for the breeding season.
The St. Lawrence Estuary is also an important habitat for beluga whales and harbour seals, which inhabit the estuary year round. The wide diversity and high density of marine mammal species found in the estuary, the proximity of watching sites and the relatively calm waters of the estuary make it one of the best sites in the world for watching marine mammals.
Status of marine mammals
About a dozen marine mammal species are regular or occasional visitors to the estuary, mostly on a seasonal basis. Of that number, close to half are species at risk according to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and are or will be protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). They include the blue whale (endangered), St. Lawrence River beluga (threatened) and fin whale (special concern).
Marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary are exposed to many threats due to human activity: disturbance or destruction of their habitat, exposure to toxic chemical materials (pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls), risks of collision with ships, exposure to noise and disturbance. The establishment of a marine protected area would make it possible to take management measures to counter or mitigate these threats, in cooperation with all stakeholders and users of marine resources.