Why we need whale watching guidelines

Be whale wise
Be whale wise

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The diversity and complexity of marine life in Canada is truly extraordinary.

It is a fragile world. Pollution, global climate change, and other impacts are taking their toll at all levels of the coastal food web. Many species of marine wildlife, such as the endangered southern resident killer whales (fish eaters), are showing signs of vulnerability.

Meanwhile, vessel traffic in our waters is steadily increasing, placing added pressures on marine animals and their habitats.

Disturbance is a known threat

Watching marine mammals is a popular activity in Canada. Quebec, particularly the St. Lawrence Estuary, is a major destination for this type of activity. Well-intentioned watchers may unknowingly disturb marine mammals, displacing them from their habitat or disrupt them during their normal activities, such as nursing and feeding. If not done correctly, watching marine mammals may increase the risk of injury through collisions with boats or being slashed by their propellers.

A report published in 2001 by Jon Lien, a well-known scientist at Memorial University in Newfoundland, states:

“whale-watching activities can disturb individuals and groups and … such disturbances, if repetitive and persistent over time, can produce harmful conservation impacts.”

A number of other studies from around the world also report on the various impacts that may be associated with whale watching.

Approaching marine mammals too quickly, coming too close or making too much noise risks disrupting their activities and needlessly stressing the animals. Our impacts on them must be minimized if we are to continue watching them.

Responsibilities of Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is responsible for conserving and protecting Canada’s marine resources, including marine mammals, although other government departments may also be involved.

Acts, regulations and other non-regulatory measures are used to fulfil this mandate. Initiatives are underway to provide Fisheries and Oceans Canada with management and conservation tools across the country. Some of these initiatives are unique to Quebec. During the interim while the initiatives are being adopted and applied, the Department considers that there is an immediate need for clear messages to be given to the general public on how to behave around marine mammals. Visit our website for updates and further information.

Principles identified for developing best practices guidelines

These guidelines are for the general public (including sea kayakers, sailing and motor boat enthusiasts and hikers on the shore).

They are intended to:

  • minimize disturbance and stress on marine mammals
  • reduce the risks of collisions with the animals
  • provide special protection for endangered species

They have been developed in consideration of current and upcoming laws, regulations and other initiatives. Special emphasis has been given to:

  • ensure consistency with proposed amendments to the Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act
  • take into account the objectives of the Species at Risk Act
  • promote measures that support the proposed St. Lawrence Estuary Marine Protected Area (MPA)
  • ensure consistency with the Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations
  • adapt practices to the needs of a particular species (status, fragility)
  • adapt practices to the needs of a particular area (e.g., intensity of observation activities, use by marine mammals)
  • incorporate a precautionary approach

Laws and regulations

This section outlines laws and regulations currently in force and initiatives that are underway. Note that laws and regulations have precedence over best practices, and each person has a duty to learn and abide by the rules applicable to the sites he or she frequents.

The Marine Mammal Regulations of the Fisheries Act

The existing Marine Mammal Regulations prohibit the disturbance of marine mammals (whales, seals and sea otters). However, they do not inform the public about behaviours that are unacceptable when viewing marine mammals in their natural environment. These regulations are currently under review and have been the subject of comprehensive consultations across Canada.

The Species at Risk Act

The Species at Risk Act (SARA) was proclaimed in June 2003. The purposes of the Act are to prevent Canadian indigenous species, subspecies, and distinct populations from becoming extirpated or extinct, to provide for the recovery of endangered or threatened species, and encourage the management of other species to prevent them from becoming at risk. At present, five species of marine mammals found in the Saguenay River and the St. Lawrence are officially listed under SARA.

St. Lawrence Estuary Area of Interest

The St. Lawrence Estuary is internationally recognized as an important area for many species of marine mammals which are present either seasonally or year-round. Each year, numerous marine mammals, including the large baleen whales, migrate there to feed and build up energy reserves for the mating season. In addition, the Estuary is an important habitat for the beluga and harbour seal, which live there all year. Several of the species frequenting the Estuary are listed as endangered in Canada.

The Area Of Interest for potential designation as a Marine Protected Area measures approximately 6,000 km2 and is adjacent to the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park created in 1998. It does not include the territory of the marine park but is complementary to it. The territory covered corresponds to the summer range of the beluga whale, to the large majority of sites used by the harbour seal population of the St. Lawrence Estuary, and to large blue whale feeding grounds. It coincides with the part of the St. Lawrence in which pressure on marine mammals is the highest.

The Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations

The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park covers a section of the St. Lawrence Estuary and Saguenay Fjord and occupies an area of 1,138 km2. The intent is to enhance the protection and conservation of the area’s marine ecosystems, while promoting their use for recreational, educational and scientific purposes. Specifically, it aims to ensure a management of the activities that occur within its territory so that they are consistent with its conservation objectives. Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations, adopted in 2002, govern behaviour around marine mammals for both licensed whale-watching business operations and for the general public.

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