The federal government has proposed a mandatory 100-metre buffer zone between whales and the people who watch them in Canadian waters.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it's trying to address whale watching vessels that get "too close, move too quickly, operate too noisily."

"There is evidence that the presence of marine mammal watching vessels disrupts the normal activities of the animals in the short and longer term," the department said in a statement on the impact of proposed regulations released last week.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said the 100-metre buffer, which is currently part of voluntary guidelines, are generally followed but not enforceable.

Hal Whitehead, a biology professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said better protections are long overdue.

"For too long in Canada, in most places anyway, whale watching is just a big free-for-all," he told CBC News.

"I think it's good that DFO is moving on this and starting to put things in place and a 100-metre buffer zone looks pretty good to me."

DFO said at least 100 coastal communities across Canada are home to whale tour operations.

Penny Graham, the owner of Mariner Cruises, operates one of a dozen whale watching boats from Nova Scotia's Digby Neck.

Questions about enforcement

"We are actually here to observe the whales, not to disturb them.… Have we ever gotten too close? I'll admit, probably there's been times that maybe we have gotten too close," Graham said in Westport, N.S.

"When you come across whales, you can generally tell when they are friendly, when they are busy feeding or travelling. We are careful."

Tom Goodwin, a biologist and the tour director at Ocean Explorations, said he has noticed changes in whale behaviour in the 25 years he's been operating in the Bay of Fundy.

"I hate to think we are taming the whales and it might affect them. But the whales have become more interested in the boats and whale-watching people through the years," he said.

Goodwin said regulations "with teeth" are needed — not so much in the Bay of Fundy but in British Columbia and Quebec, where pressure from both tour operators and recreational boaters is more intense.

"It's a big problem there. It is my understanding it is not unusual for 50 boats to watch a pod of whales," he said.

Some people are questioning DFO's ability to enforce its proposed regulations, which would also prohibit aircraft from flying within 304 metres of whales and require reporting of entanglements and collisions.

Graham said the supporting documents make no mention of additional funding.

"They would have to spend extra money to actually put patrol boats out there to see that everybody is abiding by the new rules," said Graham.

"I don't know how they'll actually do that. I personally don't ever recall any patrol, per se, taking place in our area."

Education to be main approach

When contacted by CBC News, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans said education will be its main approach in enforcing the new regulations.

"Educating the public about unacceptable human activities will be the department’s main approach to ensure compliance with these regulatory amendments," Melanie Carkner, a department spokeswoman, said in an email.

The proposed regulations are silent on a common from of close interaction with whales: when an operator turns off engines and a whale approaches.

"I'm in the business and I have customers on board and they've paid to see a whale," said Graham.

"To be truthful with you, if I saw a whale swimming towards my boat I'm not going to start the engine and go the other way. I'm going to stay shut off and stationary and let that whale swim towards me if they want to approach my boat.

Whitehead agreed that would be the most sensible approach.

DFO said the provisions are not intended to be punitive.

"The goal is to increase awareness of everyone on the water about marine mammal disturbance and to provide the department with the tools to take action against individuals who are blatantly ignoring the rules and putting the animals, and possibly themselves, at risk," Carkner wrote.

"The department will look at all incidents on a case-by-case basis."