How B.C.’s whale protection unit keeps marine mammals safe by keeping humans away | CBC News

Working for B.C.’s whale protection unit at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is not your typical day job. The crew has been patrolling the Salish Sea by boat for four years now, trying to keep humans and whales apart.

“We want to provide them as much protection as possible,” said Senior Compliance Officer Derek Chung.

Chung says the team is particularly worried about endangered Southern resident killer whales.

“There are only 73 left.”

WATCH | How the DFO’s whale protection unit protects marine mammals:

DFO whale protection unit patrols the Salish Sea

Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s whale protection unit cruises the waters around Vancouver to make sure people keep their distance from marine mammals.

DFO officers based on Annacis Island in Vancouver and Victoria monitor whale habitat, and enforce the Marine Mammal Regulations, Species at Risk Act and the Fisheries Act.

Chung says the main responsibilities are making sure boats don’t get too close — either inadvertently or on purpose — and that people stay out of areas designated as “no-go zones” due to their popularity among marine mammals.

Recently, a diver who deliberately got up close and personal with a pod of killer whales was fined $12,000.

Chung says the main part of the job is education — explaining how boats can disturb whales’ acoustic environments, prevent them from communicating or scare them out of areas they would normally feed and interact with each other.

“It’s all boaters — everybody that’s on the water,” Chung said, when asked who could face fines. “Commercial industry, commercial fishing, the whale watching industry, the dive fleets, as well as pleasure crafters.”

He says vessel strikes are another big concern and the DFO recommends anyone who encounters whales while out on the water to turn off their engine and idle until they have passed by.

An officer with a life vest on gestures in a boat.
Derek Chung of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says the whale protection unit focuses on education and doesn’t usually hand out fines unless they see someone knowingly breaking the rules. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

Researcher suggest collective approach

Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia (UBC) says the rules are there for a reason, but they’re not always easy to follow.

“The big concern is vessels that get too close to whales,” he said in an interview. “It can either injure whales by cutting them with the propellers … damage their hearing, prevent them from resting … [or] from feeding successfully.”

Trites says there’s no conclusive evidence that boats are contributing to higher mortality or lower birth rates among marine mammals. But, “do we need to prove something to know what we feel is just not right?” he said.

He explains the current rules require boaters to stay 400 metres back from endangered resident killer whales. But whale watching boats can approach transient killer whales which are “much more numerous” as well as humpbacks, minkes and grey whales.

“You need to have that specialized knowledge to differentiate them,” Trites said. “And I think you’re going to be shocked to see how far 400 metres is.”

Trites adds there are a number of factors that make it challenging to enforce distance laws, including shifting winds and the difficulty of proving that someone was knowingly breaking the rules. 

“There’s a lot of pressure on the boat operators to get closer,” he said. “I think it is important to have a [law enforcement] presence … but I think that presence is a shared responsibility.”

Whale watching businesses frustrated

Scott Hamkin, senior captain with the Seabreeze Adventures whale watching company, says he often sees pleasure boaters who seem “totally unaware” of the laws.

“We’re all licensed, and our licences are in jeopardy if we should break those laws,” said Hamkin in an interview. “There seems to be no consequences for pleasure boaters.”

Hamkin says whale watchers will try to interrupt boaters who get too close, using their boat horns or radios to let them know they’re putting the mammals in danger.

“They’ll approach them from behind and in front,” he said. “We’re so frustrated that we’re not able to do anything.”

A bald white man with a white moustache looks at the camera, with a body of water behind him.
Scott Hamkin, senior captain at Seabreeze Adventures, says it’s frustrating to run a whale watching business that follows whale protection rules, while seeing pleasure boaters who are ‘totally oblivious’ to whale safety. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

Erin Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watching Association, said in an email that the DFO has a difficult job but it often feels a “disproportionate amount of effort goes toward monitoring professional whale watch vessels.”

In its 2021 report, Salish Sea boater education group Soundwatch found that 71 per cent of boating infractions around whales involved recreational vessels.

Gless says a 2017 study found over 90 per cent of the Vancouver region’s underwater noise is generated by large vessels like ferries, tankers, cargo ships and tugs.

A boat with the words 'Whale Protection Unit' on it sails in water.
For four years, Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s whale protection unit has been patrolling the Salish Sea to try and keep humans and whales apart. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

“We do see room for improvement when it comes to DFO’s enforcement of whale regulations in B.C.,” wrote Gless, “and believe that professional whale watchers could help.”

Gless says whale watchers give the DFO evidence of infractions when they spot them, but could also help them prioritize which areas to monitor on any given day, depending on where whales are spotted and where marine traffic is highest.

Back at the DFO, Chung says the whale protection unit is focused on education first, and doesn’t hand out fines unless they can see someone is knowingly breaking the rules.

He admits the DFO only has one or two boats on the water at a time but says it works closely with the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada and B.C. parks officers.

“We’re not as hard or as easy on one sector as another,” he said. “We want to try to keep [the Salish Sea] as pristine as possible for our future generations.”

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