Recreational boaters continue to flout rules around whales: Study

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How well are whale watching regulations being followed by small vessels in the lower Salish Sea?

It’s an important question that hasn’t been answered in a scientific way—until now. 

A research study recently published in the open access journal Marine Policy shows that while almost 80 per cent of vessels are complying with the regulations, there’s still room for improvement. 

In particular, the study identifies some worrisome trends among recreational boaters that need to be addressed by stronger enforcement measures and more extensive boater education.

The peer-reviewed study, led by Molly Fraser with the University of Victoria’s Coastal and Oceans Resource Analysis Laboratory, observed 784 encounters between boats and whales in the summers of 2018 and 2019. The study area spanned west to Port Renfrew, north to Vancouver, and south to Puget Sound.

Fraser documented her observations from the upper deck of Eagle Wing’s 4 Ever Wild catamaran. She used a handheld GPS and laser range-finding binoculars equipped with a digital compass to estimate distance with an accuracy of within five metres.

Rules are there for a reason

The region’s current whale watching guidelines and regulations—which are among the most comprehensive in the world—include minimum approach distances, speed restrictions, creating clear corridors for the whales to travel, and limiting boat numbers and time spent on scene. All members of the Pacific Whale Watch Association are required to comply.

Allowable distances differ in Canada and the US, according to species and whether you’re a commercial operator or recreational boater. See Be Whale Wise Guidelines.

The study found that the compliance rate for commercial whale watching vessels overall was 81 per cent. They violated distance rules 18.6 per cent of the time with killer whales and 14.4 per cent with humpbacks.

But recreational boaters—which include powerboats, sailboats and kayaks—were all over the map. Their distances were more variable and they often approached much closer than commercial vessels. They violated distance rules more than 45 per cent of the time around killer whales and 20 per cent of the time near humpbacks.

Unintended impacts

“Seeing whales in their natural environment is a thrilling experience that has tremendous educational value when done responsibly,” says Fraser, a former naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours. “But like any wildlife viewing, it has to be done respectfully. The regulations are in place for a good reason.”

When boats get too close, approach too fast or make too much noise, they can disturb the whales from their normal activities and cause them unnecessary stress. Other unintended impacts can include vessel strikes, pollutants from exhaust, acoustic disturbance, and behavioural changes that can affect long-term health, such as interfering with feeding.

“Keeping an appropriate distance from whales is not only beneficial to the whales but to humans as well,” she says. “For instance, humpback whales are known to surface erratically and may engage in behaviours such as breaching and tail-slapping, which can cause serious injury to boaters.”

More enforcement needed

To improve compliance, the study authors call for increased on-water presence by government enforcement officers, greater investment in boater education, and more uniform distance regulations. 

In 101 days of on-water observations, government patrol vessels were seen on only three occasions, according to the study. Says Fraser: “If resources are limited, we suggest that enforcement be focused on areas with higher rates of non-compliance, such as Sooke and the southern Gulf Islands.” And patrols should be conducted throughout the week, not just on weekends and holidays.

“We have identified the areas and contexts in which policy-makers can invest in enforcement and targeted education,” says Fraser.

The bottom line is that anyone going onto the ocean needs to educate themselves about—and follow—the regulations, she adds. “If you’re on a boat and you see whales out there, it’s your responsibility to know the regulations and keep your distance.”

The study was funded in part by the non-profit Wild 4 Whales Foundation, created by Eagle Wing Tours in 2016 to support research, advocacy and education related to whales and other marine wildlife in the Salish Sea.

“Supporting Molly with this research was the right thing to do, no matter what she found,” says Brett Soberg, co-owner of Eagle Wing Tours and a veteran whale watch captain. “We’re surprised that the commercial vessel compliance rate wasn’t higher, but that’s the reality. As a professional industry we need to take note of this statistic and improve on it moving forward.”

Study confirms long-term concerns

Soberg adds that the often-reckless behaviour of recreational boaters around whales has been a source of frustration among professional whale watchers in this region for decades. “This study finally quantifies and legitimizes those concerns.”

He notes that in the last two months alone, whale watching vessels throughout the region have alerted recreational boaters—and in a few cases, navy, ferries and enforcement vessels—to the presence of whales in their path in more than 150 “sentinel” events. Sometimes boaters respond, sometimes they defiantly ignore the warning, putting the whales and themselves at risk.

“There needs to be a more visible enforcement presence, with the power to write tickets or citations on the spot,” says Soberg. “And marine mammal viewing should be mandated as part of the licensing program to drive any vessel. That’s where education needs to start.”

Soberg is hopeful this research will quickly get into the hands of decision-makers. “We all want to enjoy the privilege of seeing these beautiful animals in their natural environment, but we have to do what’s right for them. Whether we’re a professional whale watcher or a private citizen, we must do everything we can to minimize our impact—for their sake and for ours.”

You can read the study here.

Story written by Valerie Shore, marine naturalist with Eagle Wing Tours.

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