It is hard to imagine many experiences more awe inspiring than witnessing a 10,000 pound marine mammal launch itself into the air from a foamy green sea. Even from afar, catching a glimpse of a whale while boating is a memorable event. However, close encounters with marine mammals like Orcas, also known as killer whales, can have a significant impact on their health. As a result, it is essential that people are armed with the knowledge of how to responsibly boat around them.
Boat disturbance is a big issue for marine wildlife. Monitoring data shows that large vessels in close proximity (400 yards and below) to killer whales have behavioural and acoustic impacts that may potentially reduce their fitness and increase the population’s risk of extinction.
High frequency sounds created by vessels may drown out methods of communication like clicks and whistles, including echolocation, which could impair whales’ foraging and navigational abilities.
The department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada has published guidelines aimed to inform the public on how to boat around marine mammals in order to reduce harmful encounters. Included in the document are guidelines suggesting that vessel operators do not boat closer than 100 meters to any whale. However, the guidelines put forward are recommendations to citizens and are not binding regulation. As a result, British Columbia lacks a coherent regulatory plan to effectively protect killer whales from boat disturbance.
In contrast, the United States established regulations under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act in 2011 in response to the declining Southern Resident killer whale population. The restrictions prohibit vessels from approaching a killer whale in the inland waters of Washington closer than 200 yards, and also require that parked vessels keep clear of the whales’ path within 400 yards. The overarching rationale for these regulations was an attempt to manage the threats from vessel activities in support of the recovery of Southern Residents.
There is an imminent need for British Columbia to follow suit as there are only around 78 Southern Residents off the southern coast of BC and the northern coast of Washington state.
Excellent news recently came from the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Dominic LeBlanc. He announced that regulations mandating a 200 meter distance between boaters and killer whales will be in place before spring 2018. Other regulations will require boaters to keep a distance of 100 meters away from other marine mammals as well.
Considering the added pressure of increased vessel traffic in marine environments, the proposed regulations will hopefully play a part in the conservation of this vulnerable species. Public education about the impacts of boating disturbance paired with governmental regulation has the potential to make a big difference for the livelihood of these marine creatures for generations to come.
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