Beluga tour operators worried over new rules
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.
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.