Bel­uga tour op­er­a­tors wor­ried over new rules

Winnipeg Free Press - - TOP NEWS - DY­LAN ROBERT­SON dy­lan.robert­son@freep­ress.mb.ca

OT­TAWA — Churchill’s tourism op­er­a­tors are de­cry­ing new reg­u­la­tions on how close boats can ap­proach bel­uga whales, say­ing Ot­tawa is im­pos­ing rules that threaten a key draw to a re­mote town al­ready reel­ing from its lack of a rail link.

The fed­eral govern­ment says the rules shouldn’t in­ter­rupt ex­ist­ing whale tours in the north­ern Man­i­toba town — but op­er­a­tors say they’ve had no re­as­sur­ances from Ot­tawa.

“Every­thing is be­ing pulled from un­der our feet and we have no foun­da­tion to stand on,” said Dwight Allen, head of Sea North Tours, one of four tourism com­pa­nies ob­ject­ing to rules on how they ap­proach bel­u­gas.

On Wednes­day, Ot­tawa pub­lished rules on how much dis­tance boats must keep from whales, wal­ruses and other species across the coun­try. For Churchill, it pre­scribes a 50-me­tre clear­ance for boats to ap­proach bel­uga whales.

Allen, who’s op­er­ated bel­uga tours for 35 years, said bel­u­gas near Churchill are “cu­ri­ous” and ap­proach boats as soon as they en­ter the wa­ter, un­like in Nu­navut, where Inuit hunt them for food. “There’s nowhere else that they’re like this.”

A spokesman for Fish­eries Min­is­ter Do­minic LeBlanc said there was no en­forced buf­fer zone be­fore, and the new rules on “ap­proach dis­tance” means boats can’t come up close to the whales, but can still float nearby and let whales swim over.

“The amend­ments are meant to pre­vent ves­sels from pur­pose­fully ap­proach­ing marine mam­mals closer than 50 me­tres,” Vince Hughes wrote. “It is not in­tended to con­trol whether or not bel­u­gas or any other marine mam­mals ap­proach ves­sels more closely than what is out­lined in the reg­u­la­tions.”

Hughes wrote the reg­u­la­tions “are based on con­sul­ta­tions with in­dus­try, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity and en­vi­ron­men­tal non-gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions, and re­flect ac­tions al­ready be­ing taken vol­un­tar­ily by some com­mer­cial boaters in­volved in marine mam­mal watch­ing.”

But it’s un­clear whom the De­part­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans spoke with.

Wally Dau­drich, who heads Lazy Bear Ex­pe­di­tions, said he’d tried in vain to con­tact LeBlanc’s of­fice since Jan­uary 2017, and the “oner­ous” rules will drive away tourists.

“It’s been a very frus­trat­ing process,” he said, es­ti­mat­ing the tours help em­ploy 200 Man­i­to­bans and brings in $4 mil­lion to $5 mil­lion in rev­enue.

It ap­pears Ot­tawa only con­sulted with the one com­pany in the group of four that doesn’t ac­tu­ally put boats into Hud­son Bay, but rather of­fers pack­ages that con­tract out snorkelling to the other three. That’s con­cern­ing to Dauphin-area MP Robert Sop­uck, who was in the Churchill, some 1,000 kilo­me­tres north of Win­nipeg, this week as part of a fact-find­ing tour. The for­mer marine bi­ol­o­gist said the reg­u­la­tions are well-in­tended and will help whales else­where, but don’t fit the “com­pletely dif­fer­ent” en­vi­ron­ment near Churchill.

“This can­not be al­lowed to stand as-is,” said Sop­uck, the Tory con­ser­va­tion critic. He said LeBlanc promised him months ago the rules won’t hurt Churchill’s tour op­er­a­tors, a pledge he’ll hold him to when Par­lia­ment re­sumes.

The tour op­er­a­tors shared reams of cor­re­spon­dence with the Free Press, with the provin­cial govern­ment pledg­ing to raise their con­cerns with Ot­tawa, and Travel Man­i­toba of­fi­cials coach­ing them on how to meet with of­fi­cials. They sent mul­ti­ple let­ters to fed­eral min­is­ters, and say they never heard back.

Allen said with­out a rail­way (the town’s lone land link washed out in spring 2017), Churchill no longer has nu­mer­ous bud­get trav­ellers. In­stead, the town has to rely on in­ter­na­tional tourists, who spend more and opt for pack­ages such as bel­uga tours.

“The peo­ple who are trav­el­ling are spend­ing less money. There is an eco­nomic im­pact that is like a domino ef­fect,” he said. “Where does this stop? No­body’s re­spond­ing to keep our com­mu­nity sta­ble and afloat.”

In April, the con­ser­va­tion group Oceans North is­sued a re­port, ask­ing fed­eral En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Cather­ine McKenna to speed up Parks Canada’s de­ci­sion on whether to des­ig­nate a swath of the Hud­son Bay coast a Na­tional Marine Con­ser­va­tion Area. The pro­posal fo­cused on Churchill’s bel­uga whales, and would likely un­lock con­ser­va­tion fund­ing while bar­ring oil ex­plo­ration in the area.

Chris De­bicki, the group’s vice-pres­i­dent for pol­icy, said he’d seen drafted reg­u­la­tions orig­i­nally calling for a 100-me­tre buf­fer zone near Churchill, and it seems the de­part­ment re­sponded to con­cerns by low­er­ing the limit to 50 me­tres.

He said it seems op­er­a­tors can still have the whales come close — and Ot­tawa ought to have in­stead folded the rules into an NMCA des­ig­na­tion, which re­quires a “tai­lor-made” man­age­ment plan, with ex­ten­sive lo­cal con­sul­ta­tion.

“We cer­tainly as an or­ga­ni­za­tion, hoped that this whole is­sue could have been avoided in Churchill,” De­bicki said.

MIKE MACRI / SEA NORTH TOURS

The fed­eral govern­ment pub­lished rules on how much dis­tance boats must keep from whales, wal­ruses and other species Wednes­day. For Churchill, the rules pre­scribe a 50-me­tre clear­ance for boats to ap­proach bel­uga whales.

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