Table of Contents
On the ferry midway between Godbout, on Quebec's North Shore, and Matane on the south, it seems that you are on an ocean. But a well-protected ocean – an inland sea.
The St. Lawrence flows far to the north as it leaves the continent. The Strait of Belle Isle connects the St. Lawrence to the Greenland current and the arctic ecosystems. Recent confirmations by divers and ice-fishers have placed the Greenland shark on the long list of St. Lawrence species. Both the Greenland shark and the St. Lawrence beluga appear to be smaller populations separated from the larger populations, much farther north in truly arctic habitats. The Gulf of St. Lawrence clearly has arctic connections. The estuary of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is a cornucopia of ecological productivity – a rich marine farm where water is made pink by the tiny crustaceans called krill that are food for many other organisms. The river sports islands coated with nesting seabirds constantly ferrying back and forth from feeding grounds to hungry nestlings. Giant whales push seabirds off the tidelines of rich food supply so that instead of becoming bird, that food turns into whale. Miniscule plants and animals drift with the tides; large shellfish lie on the bottom. Soft-bodied invertebrates, bony fishes, seabirds, sea ducks, geese, seals, whales, and humans are all products of this 'farm.' The St. Lawrence is truly an outstandingly productive and special estuary.
But the special character of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is not just its high productivity. It also forms beautiful landscapes. Shorelines are diverse – steep capes becoming gently sloping green shores, pastoral scenes becoming steep cliffs of Laurentian hardwoods, glorying in their autumn colours. Villages down to the water's edge. Steeples on high bluffs overlooking the river's landscape. Europeans began their history in Canada along these shores. Tadoussac is the oldest European village in Canada and the first fur-trading post. Explorers including Champlain wrote the first pages of Canada's post-contact history here. A culture has long fitted itself onto the shores of the Gulf and the fit produces outstanding beauty.
The St. Lawrence River is a truly special place in Canada – Le Saint Laurent, le grand fleuve du Canada. Historically, the St. Lawrence was the highway from the Atlantic into the middle of the continent. It connected to other river travelways such as the Manicouagan, the Saguenay and the Ottawa. Over some portages and the voyageurs were into the extreme northwest of our land – almost 3700 kilometres from the Atlantic. For those who crossed the Grand Portage, the St. Lawrence led all the way to the Mackenzie River and the Arctic drainage.
In 1942-44 enemy invaders recognized this major entry into North America and their U-boats sank 23 Allied ships in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Among the losses was the Nova Scotia to Newfoundland ferry, the Caribou, with the loss of 137 civilians.
The St. Lawrence ranks 17th in flow among the world's great rivers. Almost 500 billion cubic metres of water flow from Canada and the United States, through the St. Lawrence and off the continent each year. Over 13 percent of all fresh water flowing from Canada to the seas is carried by the St. Lawrence. The Mackenzie and the St. Lawrence rank among the 25 largest rivers in the world and among many great Canadian rivers, these are the two greatest Canadian rivers.
Yearly Flow (billions of cubic metres)
Area Drained (square kilometres)
These two great rivers drain watersheds that are very different ecologically and flow off the continent into two very different seas. The Mackenzie drains boreal and tundra areas with sparse populations of indigenous peoples and a small immigrant population that is just now introducing heavy industry into the watershed. But the St. Lawrence drains the Great Lakes basin with a very high concentration of people, mostly immigrant stocks, who followed the river into its fertile and benign watershed. The St. Lawrence drains a basin of 1,756,000 square kilometres, from the centre of the continent out to the Atlantic. The majority of Canada's population, a larger number of our US neighbours, and a major proportion of our industries all drain into the St. Lawrence; concentrations of human activities with impacts that can overtax the natural processes of even this giant watershed.
Remarkably, our knowledge of these two great rivers has always been limited. Limited by the lack of research centres devoted to each river. Some research on the St. Lawrence has been eked out by cooperation among universities along its shores and by devoted federal scientists at Rimouski in Québec and Dartmouth in Nova Scotia. But a carefully prepared proposal for an integrated research program was shelved repeatedly by Environment Canada in the 1970s, despite pleas from professional scientists. Better knowledge of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, apparently was seen as a risk for a proposal for a deep-water tanker port at Ile Verte. That risk is dormant, but the need for a centre of excellence to focus expertise on the Gulf of St. Lawrence drainage basin remains. The St. Lawrence Centre of Environment Canada attempts to fill this need with research on river systems, in cooperation with universities and government laboratories, but without an integrated focus on the whole Gulf of St. Lawrence. There still is an unfilled opportunity for integrated understanding of not only the ecosystem processes of this outstanding estuary but also its history, its cultures, its aesthetic and artistic values and its future.
A similar opportunity on the Mackenzie has never been explored. Scattered research efforts by devoted government and academic scientists do not receive the support that such a great river valley deserves. Historically, native Canadians have been along the Mackenzie longer than anywhere else in the country. Commercial development has been sporadically creeping up the Mackenzie and currently the oilsands industry on the Athabasca poses severe threats. Current research by Dr. Lance Lesack of Simon Fraser University and Dr. Philip Marsh of Environment Canada gives evidence that loss of ice from the Beaufort Sea is allowing significant changes in storm-driven flooding of the Mackenzie Delta and its settlements. Yet we do not have a fully integrated research program aimed at understanding the natural processes that maintain the ecological systems of the watershed. (See also Chapter 6, The Peace-Athabasca Delta.) What an opportunity for uncovering and recording the historical development of the evolution of interactions between a colonizing human culture and the natural system that supported those human colonists. And the descendants of those people could be a major force in doing the research. How special it would be to have a University of the Mackenzie Valley — a centre of excellence on the Mackenzie providing basic research on the river and its watershed and spreading that knowledge across the land!
What would other countries devote to the St. Lawrence and to the Mackenzie and their landscapes? If we valued our great river landscapes at levels that our neighbours to the south and our European and our Asian neighbours value them, perhaps we would see that the costs for two comprehensive and well-funded centres of excellence are minor compared to their long-term worth.
The geological history of the St. Lawrence gives insight into how the ecological processes work today in the Gulf and the estuary. The Atlantic Ocean has formed and disappeared twice since the Precambrian Era, most recently about 225 to 195 million years ago. The St. Lawrence first appeared about 60 million years ago in Tertiary times as an erosional cut into an uplifted terrace that sloped toward the sea. That cut was river-like until it reached the area between Québec's North Shore and the Gaspé. From there to Cabot Strait between Newfoundland and Cape Breton, it was a broad, shallow inland sea.
Much more recently, about 2 million years ago, glaciers cut a trench, the Laurentian Channel, into the bottom of the river's bed and across that broad inland sea, following Cabot Strait out to the Atlantic. This trench, essentially an underwater fjord, extends up the St. Lawrence from the Scotian Shelf, near the Grand Banks on the continental shelf south of Newfoundland, through the gulf and the estuary to just upstream of the mouth of the Saguenay River, near Tadoussac. This Laurentian Channel is a key to understanding much of why the Gulf of St. Lawrence is so special in terms of ecological productivity.
1 – 10: This whale is feeding at the headwall of the fjord at Tadoussac where the deep, tide-driven, currents rise from the bed of the Gulf, bringing rich nutrients up into the sunlight to power this amazing ecosystem.
Tidal forces drive salt water from the Scotian Shelf upstream along the bottom of the deep Laurentian Channel. The tidal energy powers a pump that causes salt water to flow upstream along the bottom of the trench until it hits the headwall of the fjord just upstream of the mouth of the Saguenay, within sight of Tadoussac. Over the last 16 kilometres, approaching the headwall of the fjord, the floor of the trench rises abruptly from a depth of over 300 metres to only 25 metres. The tidal energy forces the deep-flowing salt water up the headwall to the surface.
There, the fresh water flow from the Great Lakes, coming downstream on the surface, provides some additional power to entrain and pull the deep water to the surface. At the same place, the fresh water flowing downstream from the Saguenay hits the St. Lawrence from the north. These two flows of fresh water mix with the nutrient-rich salt water being forced to the surface. The mix flows downstream on the surface of the St. Lawrence toward the continental shelf and the Atlantic. Tidal flow of sea water up along the trench in the floor of the gulf is about 60 times greater than the total flow of fresh water down both the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence. The continuous flow upstream at the bottom of the trench and downstream at the surface of the estuary forms a pump-like circulation.
Tide-powered circulation of water towards the surface of the Gulf.
Salt water flows upstream along the bottom, rising to mix at the surface with fresh water and flowing back downstream in the estuary. This is a very special type of estuary circulation, not the simple wedge of heavy salt water driving in under the surface flow of lighter fresh water that is common to most estuaries.
The salt water that is pumped into the St. Lawrence gulf and estuary from the Scotian Shelf is rich in nutrients that have been washed off the continent and deposited in the Scotian Banks on the continental shelf. These nutrients are brought to the surface at the headwall of the fjord at Tadoussac. On the surface the sun's energy gives power to photosynthesis. The algae do their "Green Magic" of storing that sun energy as food energy to nourish the food chain of the estuary and the gulf. As the enriched waters flow downstream on the surface, zooplankton feed on the green phytoplankton, and the foundation is produced for a food chain that supports a diversity of life forms.
As the enriched waters flow down past Anticosti and past Gaspé, they are seized by a great counter-clockwise, surface gyre. A giant, slow, circular current that circulates the rich waters over the vast shallow expanse of the gulf along the Gaspé shore, through Northumberland Strait between Prince Edward Island and the mainland, along Cape Breton, past les Iles-de-la-Madeleine, north past Bonne Bay Newfoundland, across the mouth of the Strait of Belle Isle and back west to Anticosti Island. (See surface currents map below.)
This mixing and slowing of the surface flow gives more time for the ecosystem to move the trapped energy and matter from green plants up along the food chains to shellfish and bony fish and birds. This shallow, protected environment also allows processing of the dead organic matter on the bottom by bacterial food chains that also feed significant energy and matter into the larger invertebrates and shellfish. These food chains, one based on the green plants and the other based on the bacterial decomposer community, support the species that we humans value as seafood and also support the larger birds and mammals that we see as charismatic.
With each swirl of the gyre the waters grow even richer with krill, shellfish, bony fish, sea birds, whales, seals and diverse other creatures and products. Slowly, starting where the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay mix over the headwall of the Laurentian Trench, the sun's energy converts nutrient richness into the biological richness of bacterial and plant and animal diversities before the waters spill back into the Atlantic out of this great protected sea.
The exceptional ecological productivity of the Gulf of St. Lawrence results from the trapping of sun energy by green plants, the normal power source for an ecosystem, but here there is supplemental power from the tides. Because of the Laurentian Trench which starts at the rich silt deposits of the Scotian Shelf and ends at a fjord headwall at Tadoussac, the tidal energy brings nutrients and, with a little help from fresh water inflows, mixes them into the St. Lawrence waters, richly supplementing the life that is produced. A tide-driven ecosystem. The unified gravitational pull of the sun and the moon enhance the energy flow into the ecosystem from the sun through "green magic". A celestial support system. A sun and moon system.
Because tides are periodic, their twice-daily inputs of energy make this a pulsed ecosystem. Its stability, over the long term, depends on the pulsed driving force of the tides. In another chapter we will visit the Bay of Fundy, another special place where the ecosystem is powered and stabilized by periodic pulses of energy and matter.
More variables than just the tides have affected the Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem. People have been and will be a major influence. Belugas, the white whales of the St. Lawrence and the Saguenay, have been powerfully influenced by the personal and commercial economies and the industrial development of people. The example extends easily to other impacts that we exert and to the need, and possible methods, to control our influences on the natural processes that are essential to maintain the fundamental functions of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In the early 1900s herring-trapping communities on the south shore saw belugas as threats to their livelihood, and, sometimes, also as dog food. The notion of viewing wildlife as a natural part of the human environment had not yet been conceived there.
1 – 13: Belugas in the St. Lawrence are now disconnected from the arctic population and are declining under our influence.
Later as our culture "matured" into industrialization, cheap hydro-electric power and easy water transport invited the development of the aluminum refining industry on the upper Saguenay. Economic developers were focused heavily on profit and hardly at all on ecosystem processes. Too little was known by environmental managers about ecosystems and natural processes. Industrial wastes were dumped into the air and water. Farmers were paid for damages they suffered from fluorine emitted by the aluminum refineries and business went on. However, toxins entering the waterways were ignored and the toxins continued accumulating in the belugas. When finally made public by a scientist, Pierre Béland, the amount of toxins contained by the belugas was so great that the dead belugas were officially declared to be hazardous waste. The bodies of calves were the most toxic. Assays found 25 toxic contaminants in their tissues. Among the most hazardous, PCBs and DDT and its derivatives all are fat-soluble and so they enter the calves in the belugas' milk. Maintenance of the population by reproduction has dropped dangerously.
Toxins that have never been allowed in Canada have been found in the belugas. The insecticide Mirex entered the Great Lakes from U.S. sources and was picked up by Atlantic eels. When they migrated seaward, the eels transported the Mirex to the St. Lawrence estuary where the belugas ate the eels. Recently, 15 belugas wash up dead each year mainly from toxins carried to them by eels migrating out of the Great lakes through the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Removing critical habitats also has affected the belugas. After the first Manic dam was built on the Manicouagan, flows of the Manicouagan were stabilized where it entered the St. Lawrence. Spring no longer brought the characteristic peak flows. Here the 'upwelling' of nutrients previously had made the mouth of the Manicouagan a fertile area. But the upwelling depended on the seasonal high flow rates. The dam reduced those high flows, the upwelling was reduced and the productivity at the mouth of the Manicouagan fell. Before the dam, the mouth of the Manicouagan was an important summering habitat for growing calves. Beluga calves no longer use that habitat.
In 2009, the economics-first development philosophy is proposing a liquid natural gas (LNG) facility on the south shore at Cacouna, not far from L'Isle Verte. This facility would receive imported LNG from the middle east and from Russia – a modern replacement for the deep water tanker port proposed for L'Isle Verte in the 1970s. This area is critical habitat for Beluga cows and calves and the effect of the removal of this habitat on the Beluga population recovery does not seem to be considered important in the development decisions.
Normal activities of belugas are known to be affected by boat traffic and boat behaviour. Unregulated behaviour of commercial boat operators before the declaration of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park may also have affected this declining, isolated population of belugas.
The interplay between our actions and a part of the Gulf of St. Lawrence ecological system, such as the belugas, is complex and many forces and values are poorly known. If we make the wrong decisions, the outcome will be the irreplaceable loss of part of the system – possibly a critical part. The Precautionary Principle states that when our knowledge of a system is incomplete but the outcome of a poor decision is clearly serious, then we should take all possible precautions in our decision-making.
The belugas, and many other parts of the Gulf of St. Lawrence system, require us to apply the Precautionary Principle. Yet, for example, there is little government response on either side of the border to correct the severe impact of intensive agriculture on the water quality of Lake Champlain which impacts the St. Lawrence directly. Similarly, both governments respond to the transoceanic shipping industry by dredging the St. Lawrence mid channel which dries the shorelines, killing wetlands and their communities.
White Whales - sometimes called 'sea canaries' because of their twittering calls, they occur only in the Arctic and in the St. Lawrence and Saguenay.
Records indicate that the subspecies of beluga in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is isolated from the more numerous belugas of Hudson Bay. St. Lawrence belugas clearly are threatened.
From the 1500s until the early 1900s belugas were heavily harvested from the St. Lawrence -- as many as 1880 per year were taken which probably equalled the annual number of surviving young from population reproduction. Belugas were still hunted until the 1970s.
The white whales were harvested to sell their oil. In the early 1900s, a whale yielding two 45-gallon drums of oil brought only $15. By 1962, the price was up to $28 for 45 gallons.
Fishermen, especially herring trappers on the south shore, raised the issue of belugas taking their fish. Belugas were shot simply as predators and from 1932 to 1938 Quebec paid a bounty for 2235 Belugas that were killed.
The original St. Lawrence and Saguenay beluga population was estimated to be several thousand. An 1885 estimate was 10,000. By the early 1960s aerial counts were down to 1200 to 1500. By the 1970s aerial counts put the surviving population at 300 to 500. By the early 1980s only a few hundred remained. In response to pollution management, the population increased to about 1100, far from its historic 10,000, and has failed to increase further over a decade.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence also provides special nesting habitat for an endangered subspecies, the Piping Plover, (Charadrius melodus melodus). Populations of other subspecies of the Piping Plover are in the centre of the continent, in Ontario and the Prairie provinces. In the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Piping Plovers find important nesting habitat on the beaches of the Iles-de-la-Madeleine, on Prince Edward Island and along the mainland coast of Northumberland Strait south of the Baie des Chaleurs as well as a few places on Cape Breton, Newfoundland and along the southern shore of Nova Scotia. This bird is surviving very close to the edge of extinction and, unfortunately, is suffering from competition from humans -- recreation for the humans, procreation for the Plover. Another example where the Precautionary Principle should have been applied.
Cultural change over the last few decades has moved our view of all the whales from bothersome predators and resources to be exploited for oil and corset stays to flagship species in many environmental policy debates. Nowhere is this change more evident than in Tadoussac. You can hardly look anywhere in the village without seeing evidence of the high value of whales to the people of Tadoussac. Whales everywhere: names of businesses, advertising silhouettes, cruise companies, and at the dock, millions invested in infrastructure focused on tourists who want to interact with whales.
The whales, both oceanic species (blue, fin, minke and humpback), and the St. Lawrence subspecies of beluga, can be experienced from whale-watching boats operating out of Tadoussac. As a result of many years of observation by volunteers, such as Leone Pippard, followed by the declaration of a National Marine Park on the Saguenay and the St. Lawrence at Tadoussac, the whales were made into a primary resource for the economy of the village. When the upwelling at the Fjord headwall off Tadoussac is strong, whale-watchers follow along the tide lines generated by the upwelling flow mixing into the currents of the Saguenay coming in from the north and the currents of the St. Lawrence coming from the Great Lakes. Often, these current lines of mixing waters are literally paved with gulls, shearwaters, fulmars and other seabirds.
Fin whales feeding along those current lines can be seen pushing the seabirds off the water and into flight. It is truly spectacular to witness a 25 metre, 50 tonne sea mammal competing with thousands of sea birds for uncountable numbers of krill.
1 – 16: Uncountable numbers of tiny crustaceans called krill support vast numbers of sea birds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Tour operators must be careful in the positioning of their boats so that the feeding whales are not harassed. Until the Park is officially proclaimed, good behaviour of whale boats depends on education and self-policing, supported by only one weak regulation. Initiation of commercial operations in the Park is similarly unregulated; as many as two dozen new companies have begun operation in the Park in a single year.
The whales, especially the belugas, were a major stimulus to forming the National Marine Park. The park extends from just below Kamouraska downstream to Les Escoumins and upstream along the Saguenay River to Cap à l'Est, not far downstream from Chicoutimi. The Saguenay River also flows in a glacier-carved fjord but unlike the underwater Laurentian Trench, the walls of the Saguenay fjord rise spectacularly above the water. An inland version of a classical fjord generating the spectacular landscape scenery for which the Saguenay is famous.
1 – 17: As with material capital in any business, good operators will protect their natural capital. Careful operation of tour boats will be required to protect this natural wealth.
1 – 18: Walls of another ancient fjord rise along the Saguenay river.
The Saguenay fjord also is spectacular under the river's water. It is a deep trench but, where it meets the St. Lawrence, a shallow rock sill acts like an underwater dam. It traps the deeper water of the fjord and that water is age-old sea water. The lighter fresh water runoff from the Saguenay valley flows over top of the heavy, ancient sea water in the bottom of the trench.
Inflow of dangerous water contaminants should be a major concern for a marine park sited at the confluence of the two rivers. The Saguenay is known to have delivered compounds in its fresh water that threaten flagship species and ecosystem processes in the marine park. What about the St. Lawrence inflow? The whole Great Lakes basin influences the quality of water entering the Park from the St. Lawrence. That inflow is affected not only by two of Canada's biggest cities but also by heavily industrialized areas in the United States. Declaring a park boundary does little to actually safeguard its most important feature – the water quality.
1 – 19: The ferry to Tadoussac crosses an ancient fjord in the bed of the Saguenay. Trapped in the depths of this fjord, there is 'fossil' seawater held in by a rock sill that acts as an underwater dam where the Saguenay joins the St. Lawrence. Freshwater floats on top of the salt and creates complex cross-currents where it enters the St. Lawrence.
However the National Marine Park does offer features that will educate the public and hopefully lead to political pressures to safeguard the fundamental ecosystem processes. The Pointe-Noire Observation and Interpretation Centre will let you see clearly the patterns of upwelling and current lines, or 'rip tide zones', and usually whales and seabirds. The Park's Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre will help you learn about the whales. You can observe and learn about the St. Lawrence subspecies of beluga at Baie Sainte-Marguerite at Le Béluga Interpretation Centre.
Humans also are a most important force in the environment of seals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, especially the harp seal. The large, shallow basin of the gulf between Gaspé and Newfoundland is prime seal habitat. In late winter when iced over, it also is prime nursery habitat for seals to bear their young and look after the young pups.
1 – 20: The ice on the Gulf between Gaspé and Newfoundland is a critical component of Harp Seal winter habitat.
Historically, seals have been looked on as exploitable sources of raw resources to be harvested as cash crops. First as leather, meat and oil to meet local needs. Then as just pelts for cash sale.
As fish stocks declined and failed to recover when harvesting was limited, fishermen blamed seals as predators. (Although overfishing of nearby fish stocks was recognized as a clear culprit.)
1 – 21: Whitecoat pups are born on the ice and become contested symbols seen differently by sealers, animal rights activists and even trans-ocean shippers who would remove the ice if they could.
Into this complex of behaviours entered, from Europe and then from North America, the emerging cultural trend of defending animals against exploitation and cruelty. The doe-eyed harp seal pup made front pages world-over and drew celebrities to the defensive, with or without relevant knowledge. Seal harvesters became targets in clear focus. Seal populations were strongly affected by an emotional relationship between two individuals – one human and one seal pup. Affection for the animals all but erased the market for seal products. The integral nature of sealing in the historical Newfoundland culture was shown no quarter. That part of the culture was declared illicit. Obsolete by failure to adapt for too long.
The Gulf of St. Lawrence is one special example of many Canadian environments that are essentially systems of the sun and the moon. The sun provides the power for "green magic" that provides food energy for all the living things and the sun and the moon together move the ocean's water and provide the energy of the tides that, like the farm tractor, speeds up the work and increases the productivity of the natural processes. Canada's geography has provided many coastal environments and in many of those, ecosystems of the sun and the moon bless us with their exceptional productivity. We should be more careful to share that productivity with all the other living things of those ecosystems. It would be unwise to continue our past mistake of appropriating too much for humans or, even worse, to distort the natural maintenance mechanisms or to divert the power sources of the natural processes of these systems.
The Gulf and the estuary of the St. Lawrence function in an ecologically special way that may not be duplicated anywhere. It is time in the rich history of le grand fleuve to add its special ecological productivity to the river's many other attributes. Learning more about the natural processes of the Gulf and the estuary is our obligation. Protecting the functioning of those processes is our moral responsibility. It is time for the natural wealth of this great river to be valued just as highly as the monetary wealth that it has delivered for so long.
Table of Contents
|1||JA||Gulf of St. Lawrence – Matane, QC|
|2||GM||Deer Island, NB|
|7||GM||Baie St. Charles, QC|
|9||JA||Middle Mackenzie, NT|
|14 and 3 ff||JA||Tadoussac, QC|
|18||GM||Saguenay fjord, QC|
|19||GM||Saguenay fjord, QC|
|20||JA||Gulf of St. Lawrence – Magdalens, QC|
|21||JA||Gulf of St. Lawrence – Magdalens, QC|
|Endpiece||JA||Gulf of St. Lawrence – north shore, QC|
|Maps Bedford Inst. Oceanography Biennial Review 1977-1978|
|Diagram GM original after data in “L'oceanographie de l'estuaire du St. Laurent,” Le Naturaliste canadien 106(1) jan-fev 1979|
|JA – copyright © Jeff Amos|
|GM – copyright © Gray Merriam|