No more swimming with the whales?

Pro­posed marine mam­mal reg­u­la­tions would im­pact tour boat op­er­a­tions

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BYMELISSA JENK­INS

A Car­bon­ear tour boat op­er­a­tor is ap­plaud­ing pro­posed changes to marine mam­mal reg­u­la­tions that may come into ef­fect in the near fu­ture.

Dean Penney, who op­er­ates E & S Div­ing Ser­vices/Is­land Char­ter Tours, first heard ru­mors about the pro­posed changes to the buf­fer zone be­tween marine mam­mals and wa­ter­craft last year.

The reg­u­la­tions sug­gested by the Depart­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans (DFO) would re­quire any recre­ational wa­ter­craft or scuba divers to re­main 100 to 200 me­tres from whales, dol­phins or por­poises and 400 m from en­dan­gered species. Bel­u­gas would have a buf­fer zone of 50 m be­tween June and Oc­to­ber, while the buf­fer for wal­ruses would range from 100 to 300 m.

Ac­cord­ing to a DFO spokesper­son, the Trea­sury Board ap­proved a pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion process for the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions in 2012, and it will make the fi­nal decision. A time­frame was not con­firmed to The Com­pass.

Split opin­ion

Penney be­lieves this buf­fer zone is es­sen­tial for sur­vival of marine life, and said he has al­ways kept a 100 m dis­tance.

“If you think about it, it’s presently il­le­gal to hunt or chase wildlife… us­ing any type of mo­tor ve­hi­cle,” he re­cently told The Com­pass. “I see no dif­fer­ence here with the pro­posed reg­u­la­tion (changes). Ba­si­cally you’re harassing wildlife by chas­ing down th­ese mam­mals and snor­kel­ing or div­ing with them.”

But another tour boat op­er­a­tion that of­ten spends time around the Bay de Verde penin­sula is rais­ing con­cerns about the pro­posed changes.

Ocean Quest Ad­ven­tures in Con­cep­tion Bay South took to Face­book last week, sug­gest­ing the changes may lead to the can­cel­la­tion of one of its most popular tours — Close En­coun­ters: Whales.

Owner Rick Stan­ley, a na­tive of Heart’s De­light, told The Com­pass his tour of­ten vis­its the shores of Bac­calieu, where par­tic­i­pants snorkel in ar­eas whales are known to visit.

Stan­ley’s business does not en­cour­age par­tic­i­pants to ap­proach marine life, but rather wait for whales to ap­proach them. “It’s very pas­sive in­ter­ac­tion,” he said. But Penney dis­agrees, say­ing the cur­rent lack of reg­u­la­tion and leaves the mam­mals vul­ner­a­ble to ex­ter­nal threats.

“There are tour op­er­a­tors all around our prov­ince who use high speed zo­diac boats and are en­gag­ing in this prac­tice of chas­ing and harassing th­ese mam­mals, and to me this an un­ac­cept­able prac­tice.”

Tourism

One of the is­sues raised by Ocean Quest is the tourism sea­son. The company takes peo­ple from all over the world to in­ter­act with whales, and is mar­keted through the Cana­dian Tourism Com­mis­sion.

“(Whale in­ter­ac­tion) is part of our ex­pe­ri­ence in what

Brian Hanrahan, Mort­gage Spe­cial­ist we’re sell­ing to the world,” Stan­ley ex­plained. “Not only in New­found­land, but all of Canada.”

He is not cer­tain yet if the buf­fer zone re­stric­tions will ap­ply to his op­er­a­tion, so he has set up a meet­ing later this month to get more clar­i­fi­ca­tion from DFO.

Ocean Quest has book­ings for whale tours up to 2017, and Stan­ley fears it won’t look kindly to vis­i­tors if he had to start can­celling those book­ings, sug­gest­ing it would be em­barass­ing to Canada.

Penney, who also works for the Cana­dian Coast Guard, doesn’t be­lieve the changes will be sig­nif­i­cant to the tourism in­dus­try.

“Yes, there may be one tourism op­er­a­tor who is ac­tively en­gaged in this ‘close-up, one of a (kind) en­counter ex­pe­ri­ence,’ but for the gen­eral tourist pop­u­la­tion, tourists are more than ex­cited to see a whale than (to) get in the wa­ter with one,” Penney ex­plained. “In the wa­ter, close up ex­pe­ri­ence is a niche of­fer­ing that will have to ad­just to the pro­posed reg­u­la­tions for safety and pro­tec­tion of the marine mam­mal.”

Stan­ley fears that if the reg­u­la­tions change, whales them­selves may cre­ate prob­lems for tour op­er­a­tors.

“The whales are so cu­ri­ous,” he ex­plained. “And then of course it’s just a mat­ter of some­one tak­ing a pic­ture and then we’re ‘guilty,’ and hav­ing to de­fend our­selves.”

DFO re­sponds

In the email from DFO, the spokesper­son con­firmed if the reg­u­la­tions are to change, it would be about pro­tect­ing the marine mam­mals.

“While the Marine Mam­mal reg­u­la­tions pro­hibit dis­tur­bance of marine mam­mals, it has been dif­fi­cult to en­force the pro­hi­bi­tion be­cause of a lack of pre­ci­sion about the def­i­ni­tion of dis­tur­bance. The pro­posed amend­ments are de­signed to make the pro­hi­bi­tion on dis­tur­bance clearer for tour op­er­a­tors, en­force­ment per­son­nel and the Cana­dian pub­lic, and pro­vide bet­ter con­ser­va­tion out­comes for marine mam­mals.”

The spokesper­son did con­firm the depart­ment is in talks with the tourism in­dus­try, and con­firmed their con­cerns will be taken into con­sid­er­a­tion when the fi­nal decision is made.

As for Stan­ley, an open line of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is ex­actly what he wants, both for the ben­e­fit of DFO and the in­dus­try.

“We’d love to work with DFO, in part of the so­cial sci­ence of it all,” he said, adding the depart­ment has been given an in­for­mal invitation to take part in the ac­tiv­i­ties he pro­vides to see for them­selves what is in­volved.

Photo sub­mit­ted by Ocean Quest Ad­ven­tures

Ocean Quest Ad­ven­tures ad­ver­tises the op­por­tu­nity of a lifetime to swim with whales off New­found­land coasts, but pro­pos­als for reg­u­la­tion changes may put an end to it.

Dean Penney

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