Beluga boats threatened by new rules in Churchill, Manitoba

CHURCHILL, Man. – Manitoba’s tourism industry fears new national whale-watching rules could drive beluga boats out of business in Churchill and threaten the Hudson Bay community’s $7-million summer tourism season.

Ottawa has proposed new regulations requiring tour operators to come no closer than 100 metres to whales or other marine mammals in Canadian waterways.

An exception proposed for southwestern Hudson Bay, where thousands of beluga whales gather at river mouths every summer, would reduce that approach limit to 50 metres at the Churchill River estuary.

Jeff MacDonald of Fisheries and Oceans Canada says the point of the regulations is to protect humans as much as whales and provide a greater definition of what constitutes disturbing a marine mammal.

He says the 100-metre national limit was developed by tour operators though consultations led to an exception being made for Churchill.

Manitoba’s tourism industry nonetheless remains concerned that even a 50-metre limit could wipe out the whale-watching business because belugas in the Churchill River estuary routinely approach small craft.

“Every day, the beluga whales are feet from our boats,” says tour boat operator Wally Daudrich. “This is a population of whales that is curious, gregarious and very, very friendly. It’s likely the only population of (beluga) whales that is unintimidated by mankind in the entire world.”

Travel Manitoba president Colin Ferguson agrees that in Churchill, the belugas voluntarily approach the boats, adding the tour operators do not pursue the whales.

Kristin Westdal, a marine biologist for the Pew Charitable Trust’s Oceans North Canada, says she’s not concerned with the new federal regulations as long as they define what’s meant by approaching whales.

“I think the operators are operating in a way that’s respectable and once there’s further clarity, everyone will be on the same page,” says Westdal.

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