Happy New Year! I trust you enjoyed a restful and relaxing holiday season. To be sure, many folks are still away this week but TIABC is back in the office and ready to tackle the issues that plague BC’s visitor economy.
My home-sick, Regina-based daughter recently sent me a social media post of a pod of orcas frolicking in the waters of Active Pass, putting on a show for the folks aboard BC Ferries and those gazing from the shores of both Galiano and Mayne Islands.
As I’ve mentioned before, to me there is hardly a bigger thrill than seeing these magnificent creatures in their natural habit. Seems it’s the same for thousands of others too. In fact, well over 200,000 people annually join some 14 BC-based Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) member operators on tours that generate in excess of $132 million in economic activity and support close to 1,200 jobs. One-third of these non-resident guests report that whale watching was their primary reason for visiting our province.
For nearly five years, Transport Canada has issued an interim order vis-a-vis the killer whale in Southern BC waters with the intention of protecting the endangered J-Pod (Southern Resident Killer Whale). Some of the measures include interim sanctuary zones in the Gulf Islands that are closed to vessel traffic, and increasing the approach distance from all killer whales from 200 to 400 metres.
However, each year Transport Canada has made exceptions for trained whale watch professionals to continue viewing non-endangered killer whales (e.g. Bigg’s, Northern Residents) from the 200 metre distance in exchange for no viewing of Southern Residents from any distance. While the authorization technically expires each May 31st, the annual exemption appears to be in limbo.
This past November, Transport Canada indicated it may discontinue the authorization altogether citing confusion over differing regulations for professional whale watch vessels and recreational boaters. Consequently, operators forced to view all killer whales (i.e. regardless of species) from a distance of 400 metres would realize a significant impact on their business. Imagine trying to see an orca from the equivalent of four football fields away at sea level.
There are other measures Transport Canada is considering that would also be detrimental to this vital tourism sub-sector. To that end, a decision is expected next Friday followed by a 30-day consultation period for stakeholders and members of the public after which Transport Canada will deliver its final recommendations next month with new rules to be adopted in mid-April.
Our members at PWWA recently sent a letter to the province requesting a meeting (TIABC would also attend) to further outline concerns, discuss proposed solutions, and enlist provincial government support to advocate on behalf of whale watch operators to ensure their future livelihood and the retention of this quintessential, iconic BC visitor experience.
If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter, you may be experiencing déjà vu. You’re right…we’ve dealt with this issue before but for some reason the odds don’t look good in this latest go-around.
I’m mindful that there are some folks who prefer to do away with the whale watch sector citing environmental and other concerns. Putting aside the economics (i.e. creating jobs, generating visitor spending in restaurants, hotels, attractions, transportation, retail), there are many reasons why these highly trained ecotourism professionals should be allowed to continue and thrive, not the least of which is the sustainability and conservation work they do daily to ensure responsible wildlife viewing and the health and well-being of all killer whales and other whale species in our waters.
TIABC will keep you posted on Transport Canada’s decision and the opportunity for you to respond within the public engagement process.
As you know, the BC Tourism Industry Conference takes place in Victoria in early March. I’ve already heard from our whale watch members who are keen to host delegates for a tour either before or after the event. For me, there would be no bigger thrill than seeing a killer whale on the water and then connecting with my industry colleagues at the conference.
On behalf of TIABC, I wish you a safe, healthy and prosperous year ahead.