Beluga tour operators in Northern Canada decry new rules protecting marine mammals

A female beluga whale with swims with one of her calves in the St. Lawrence River, Quebec, in 2017. (Jean-François Bouthillette/CBC)
Tour operators in the northern town of Churchill, in the Canadian province of Manitoba, say new government rules to protect whales could put them out of business. Regulations were announced in June 2018 obliging vessels to keep a distance from whales, porpoises and dolphins.

The rules were drafted after several whales were killed by ship strikes in the distant St. Lawrence Estuary in southern Quebec. But the tour operators argue their situation is very different and that the regulations should not apply to them.

Belugas known for approaching ships

“Beluga whales are very social, and they approach our boats as soon as they leave dock, and kayakers and snorkelers as soon as they are in the water. It is not possible for tour operators to keep 50 metres distant, let alone 100 metres, from the Belugas,” said Wally Daudrich, chair of the Churchill Beluga Whale Tour Operator Association in a news release.

“It looks to us like the only way for tour operators to comply is not to put boats, kayaks or snorkelers in the water. Further, for at least one of our members, snorkeling with Belugas represents two thirds of their business. Turning away guests who want to engage in these kinds of interaction would shutter our family-run businesses,” added Daudrich.

Beluga whales are known for approaching boats, say tour operators. (iStock)
Tourists are already on the way

The association has written to the government to ask for an exemption to the rules for its members, but has so far received no reply. Tour operators say notice of the new regulations was sudden and they had already booked tours and purchased supplies and equipment for the coming season.

The operators say they are not a threat to belugas and that their presence discourages hunting which they maintain is the real danger to the animals.

Severe fines for lawbreakers

If the tour operators are found to contravene the regulations and get too close to the whales, they are liable for fines up to $500,000 under Canada’s Fisheries Act.

They estimate the new regulations put at risk some 200 jobs and up to $10 million of economic activity in Churchill. The town is already suffering economic hardship after a vital rail link to the south was washed out and it’s port was shuttered.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Inuit association gets $900,000 to monitor marine protected area in Arctic Canada, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Endangered Finnish seal population slowly recovering, Yle News

Iceland: Arctic tourism in the age of Instagram, Eye on the Arctic special report

Norway: Lower Barents Sea cod and haddock quotas, scientists advise, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Polar bears greatly exposed to toxic chemicals in eastern Barents Sea, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Poachers suspected behind dwindling wolf numbers in Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: World maritime body approves first Arctic ship routing measures, Radio Canada International

Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

Born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, Lynn has dedicated her working life to journalism. After decades in the field, she still believes journalism to be a pillar of democracy and she remains committed to telling stories she believes are important or interesting. Lynn loves Canada and embraces all seasons: skiing, skating, and sledding in winter, hiking, swimming and playing tennis in summer and running all the time. She is a voracious consumer of Canadian literature, public radio programs and classical music. Family and friends are most important. Good and unusual foods are fun. She travels when possible and enjoys the wilderness.

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