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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Whale watch boats often break rules, say marine mammal monitors


Jason Smith readily admits he messed up yesterday morning when he failed to turn up in Campbell River provincial court charged with disturbing killer whales.

"I thought it was tomorrow. I kind of blew it," he said sheepishly.

"There's a warrant out for my arrest? No kidding."

However, Smith -- while scrambling to try and put the court situation to rights -- is not ready to admit he did anything wrong last year when the whale watching boat he was operating was surrounded by northern resident killer whales feasting on salmon.

"I was shut down and drifting for almost a solid hour before those whales literally came up all around my boat and were feeding on salmon," said Smith, who has guided whale watch tours for a decade.

Smith, 37, of Quadra Island is one of only a handful of whale watch boat operators who have been charged with disturbing or harassing marine mammals. "I was told I should have started up the engines and moved, but that goes against every instinct as a mariner and guide," said Smith, who was working for Eagle Eye Adventures when he was seen by a Straitwatch employee, near Windy Point in Johnstone Strait.

Straitwatch is a marine mammal monitoring program.

Doug Sandilands, Straitwatch operations manager, said he cannot talk about the specific case, but around Johnstone Strait there are 1.5 "incidents" every 20 minutes during whale watching season.

Usually boats break whale watching guidelines that say they cannot approach closer than 100 metres or put their boats in the path of whales, he said.

"It's not necessarily intentional. Sometimes they don't notice whales are present," Sandilands said. Private boats are 400 per cent more likely to be breaking the guidelines than the whale watching fleet, he added.

"There are about five or six incidents in a summer that we forward to DFO [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] and those are the ones that we are pretty sure were deliberate," Sandilands said.

It is vital that everyone on the water respects the whales as they struggle for survival with shrinking runs of chinook salmon and high levels of toxins, Sandilands said.

There are about 240 northern resident killer whales.

Lara Tessaro, Ecojustice Canada staff lawyer, said it is particularly important to enforce regulations in Johnstone Strait, which is sometimes "thronged" with whale watch operators.

"Scientists are telling us that whale-watching, if done carelessly, can pose serious threats to the recovery of killer whales," she said.

Tessaro wants to see marine mammal regulations tightened so acoustic, and physical, disturbance is prohibited because whales hunt by echo-location.

Marine mammal regulations will be amended, said Paul Cottrell, DFO marine mammal co-ordinator. The amendments, which will probably be in place by fall, will include a clarification of disturbance and legislate the 100-metre rule for cetacean viewing, he said.

The Pacific Whale Watch Association would like the amended legislation to read you cannot "negligently" be within 100 metres of the whales.

jlavoie@tc.canwest.com

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Whale watch boats are definitely a hazard to whales around Head harbour Light. I have watched whale watch boats run right up to a whale to the point where the whale has to try to avoid the boat. They also have scratches and scrapes and nicks all over them from colisions of some sort.Their scraped bodies look as though they are harassed in their environment. I have had tourists comnment on this and say they would not go out in a whale watch boat again. . Joyce

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