Patroling the Salish Sea: How BC’s Whale Protection Unit keeps marine mammals safely by keeping humans away.

Working in the British Columbia Whale Conservation Unit at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is not your normal day job. The crew has been patrolling the Salish Sea by boat for four years, trying to keep humans away from the whales.

“We want to give them as much protection as possible,” said Derek Chung, chief compliance officer.

Chung says the team is particularly concerned about the endangered southern resident killer whale.

“There are only 73 left.”

Watch | How the DFO’s Whale Protection Unit protects marine mammals:

The DFO’s Whale Protection Unit patrols the Salish Sea

The Whale Protection Unit of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is taking a cruise in the waters around Vancouver to make sure people stay away from marine mammals.

DFO officials on Anaassis Island in Vancouver and Victoria monitor whale habitats, and enforce marine mammal regulations, the Endangered Species Act and the Fisheries Act.

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

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

A key part of the work, Chung says, is education — showing how boats can disturb whales’ vocal environments, preventing them from communicating or scaring them from areas where they normally feed and interact with each other.

Asked who might face fines, Chung said: “They’re all boat owners — everyone who’s been on the water.” “Commercial industry, commercial fishing, whale watching industry, diving fleets, as well as artisans.”

He says ship strikes are another big concern, and the DFO recommends anyone who encounters whales while on the water turn off their engine and idle until they pass.

An officer in a life jacket gestures in a boat.
Derek Chung of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says the Whale Conservation Unit focuses on education and doesn’t usually deliver fines unless they see someone intentionally breaking the rules. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

The researcher proposes a group approach

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

“The biggest concern is the ships that get too close to the whales,” he said in an interview. “It can hurt whales either by cutting them with propellers… and harming their hearing, preventing them from resting… [or] successful breastfeeding.

Trites says there is no conclusive evidence that boating contributes to high mortality or low birth rates among marine mammals. But, “Do we need to prove something to know that what we feel is not true?” He said.

He explains that current rules require boaters to stay within 400 meters of the endangered killer whale. But whale watching boats can get up close and personal with passing killer whales “which are a lot more” as well as humpback, minke and gray whales.

“You need that specialized knowledge to differentiate them,” Triets said. “And I think you’d be shocked to see the 400 metres.”

Trites adds that there are a number of factors that make distance laws difficult to enforce, including variable winds and the difficulty of proving that someone was intentionally breaking the rules.

“There is a lot of pressure on boat operators to get close,” he said. “I think it is important to have a file [law enforcement] Presence..but I believe that being there is a shared responsibility.”

Watching corporate whales frustrated

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

“We are all licensed, and our licenses are at risk if we have to break those laws,” Hamkin said in an interview. “It appears that there are no consequences for the pleasure boaters.”

Hamkin says whale watchers will try to interrupt boaters who get too close, using boat horns or radios to let them know they are endangering the mammals.

He said, “They will approach them from the back and the front.” “We are so frustrated that we are unable to do anything.”

A bald white man with a white mustache looks at the camera, and behind him is a body of water.
Scott Hamkin, first captain at Seabreeze Adventures, says it’s frustrating to run a whale-watching company that follows whale protection rules, while seeing fun boaters ‘totally oblivious’ about whale safety. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

Erin Glees, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, said in an email that the office of whale watchers has a challenging task, but it often feels that “a disproportionate amount of effort goes toward monitoring professional whale-watching vessels.”

in that 2021 reportSalish C. boating education group Soundwatch found that 71 percent of boating offenses around whales involved recreational vessels.

Gillies A . says 2017 study It found that more than 90 percent of underwater noise in the Vancouver area is caused by large vessels such as ferries, tankers, cargo ships and tugs.

A boat with a phrase on it sails
For four years, the Fisheries and Oceanic Foundation’s Whale Conservation Unit has been patrolling the Salish Sea in an effort to separate humans from whales. (Nicholas Allan/CBC)

Gillies writes: “We see room for improvement when it comes to DFO enforcement of B.C. whale rules, and we believe professional whale-watchers can help.”

Glees says whale watchers provide the DFO with evidence of irregularities when they spot them, but it can also help them prioritize which areas to watch on any given day, depending on where the whales are spotted and where marine traffic is higher.

Returning to the DFO, Chung says the Whale Protection Unit focuses on education first, and doesn’t offer fines unless they can see someone intentionally breaking the rules.

He admits that DFO only has one or two boats on the water at a time, but says he works closely with officers of the Canadian Coast Guard, Transport Canada and BC.

“We are not as difficult or easy for a sector as another,” he said. “We want to try to keep [the Salish Sea] As pure as possible for our future generations.”

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