Churchill tour operators say new boat rules are whale of a problem

Northern tour operators say new federal regulations meant to protect marine mammals could put them out of business.

Churchill tour operators optimistic MP Shelly Glover will help them get exemption

Churchill tour operators say new federal regulations that would keep their boat tours at least 50 metres from belugas are impossible to follow because the animals are curious and approach the boats and are too numerous to avoid. (Lazy Bear Lodge )

Northern tour operators say new federal regulations meant to protect marine mammals could put them out of business. 

Wally Daudrich, president of the Beluga Whale Tourism Association and owner of the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill, 
says the rules prohibit boats from approaching belugas any closer than 50 metres. 

Daudrich says that's impossible. 

"As soon as our boats are in the water it's usually a matter of minutes that pods of beluga whales [approach]," he said Wednesday. "It's impossible not to see beluga whales when you look at the [Churchill] river here in July and August. It almost looks like it's storming out because it looks like white caps, but it's actually ... beluga whales. It's not unusual to go out for a three hour tour and see a thousand whales."

Daudrich says originally the federal government said tour operators had to keep a distance of 100 metres, they've come down to 50 for Churchill operators, but even 50 is unrealistic.

We consider the whales our business partners.- Wally Daudrich, Lazy Bear Tours

"What DFO is doing is essentially taking international regulations which have already been applied to the east coast and the west coast which is dramatically different in the essence of what kind of whale watching happens there."

He says the difference between belugas and the kinds of whales on the east and west coasts is that belugas are very curious. And they are far more numerous than whales in other areas. 

"The beluga whale population is estimated at just under 60,000, which makes it the largest concentration of whales in the world," he said. 

Wally Daudrich says it's impossible to avoid coming close to beluga whales because they are curious and will approach the tour boats and there are so many of them, travelling in pods of up to 20 or 30 at one time. (Lazy Bear Lodge )
Daudrich says operators have told the federal government that it's impossible for operators in Churchill to follow the rules, even if they wanted to.

"When we talked to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans back in 2004, we explained to them that if we abide by the regulations ...  we would be breaking the law as soon as we put our boats in the water because literally right on our tails, we get out on the water [and] the beluga whales are right there."

'[Shelly Glover's] on board to helping us ask for a complete exemption for our area."-Dwight Allen, Sea North Tours

He said eco-tourism is now a thriving business, thanks in part to Travel Manitoba which has promoted Churchill, but the new regulations threaten that. 

Daudrich says Churchill's three operators, Sea North Tours, Churchill Wild Seal River Heritage Lodge, and his own business, know what they're doing and want a say in how they are regulated. 

"We have 100 years combined experience in the eco-tourism industry," he said. "We consider the whales our business partners." 

MP's visit sparks hope for exemption 

Dwight Allen, who runs Sea North Tours, says he's optimistic the issue will be resolved after Manitoba MP Shelly Glover visited Churchill Wednesday afternoon, giving tour operators the chance to plead their case.

Allen says Glover got their message. 

"I was very surprised that Shelly Glover was receptive to us," he said. "She's on board to helping us ask for a complete exemption for our area." 

Allen says Glover has been in Churchill before and has seen first-hand how the belugas approach the boats. 

"She understands where we're coming from," he said. 

He said it's not just tour operators lobbying for the change. 

"We have our community behind us. We have Travel Manitoba. We have a lot of support," he said. "Yes, I am feeling confident we are going to be able to achieve our goals as being exempted."