No more swimming with the whales?
Proposed marine mammal regulations would impact tour boat operations
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.