Whale watchers defend decision to return to water

Photo taken from the Pacific Whale Watchers Association

A local whale watching group is defending their choice to return to work after a hiatus due to COVID 19 restrictions.

This comes after former member of the Pacific Whale Watching Association (PWWA), Michael Harris, said that whale watching companies will not be able to operate safely. 

"I feel strongly about that. When you are talking about these bigger boats, which they have to use, they start putting areas designated for social distancing and suddenly an orca pops up on the starboard side and everybody is on the port side, it's a mass rush. People get excited and they rush to one side of the boat. I just don't see how they can do it."

Harris went on to say that the season is already abbreviated and that there is a serious crisis with resident orcas.

"I'm being very consistent and I'm saying to everybody that I talk to; let's just shut it down, shut it down for the season. Retool your boats, do a little work on your boats, make them quieter and let's give these whales a break. Let's come back in the spring in a healthy way and with a healthier batch of whales out there." 

Harris said a "task force" all voted to give the Southern Resident Orcas a break from whale watching for two to three years, but the PWWA was the only stakeholder to say no.

"Here's an opporunity where we can keep people safe and we can keep whales safe. A lot of these operators, in fact, most of these operators, are very, very wealthy. They can afford to take some time off and be safe and support their employees in other ways." 

The current director of the PPWA, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, disagreed on more than one point made by Harris.

He said the industry has taken a dramatic hit due COVID-19. 

"The PWWA members in April were forced to lay off 503 employees, 295 of which were from Canadian companies," said Balcomb-Bartok. "He (Harris) doesn't understand that these are family run businesses. Some of these folks have been doing it for 15-20 years, they've got staff that they've been keeping together for 15 or 20 years. These are operations where these are passionate professionals. I can't even fathom those statements, they are just beyond me."

The association has put together a 12 page blueprint detailing social distancing practices and protocols to keep employees and passengers safe, including mandatory face masks to prevent the spread of COVID 19, which the province has accepted. 

To the point Harris made on the Southern Resident Orcas in crisis, Balcomb-Bartok had this to say: 

"He's infactual on all of that. But I think it's important to understand that the goal of the Southern Resident Taks Force was to recover the Southern Resident Whale population and of the 40 odd recommendations, only five have been funded and only a few of them have been completed. The most important ones really come back to salmon. It's the Columbia River and the Fraser River and the Chinnook. 

"When the shelves are bare the whales aren't there. That's what is really most important for our southern resident killer whales, is, let's get them fed. It's a distraction to think anything other than that," he said the PPWA and its member companies are returning to the waters safely. 

"What he's saying is shut us down and what I'm saying is there is a value and we have done our due dilligence to get our health plans together. That took several months of working closely with WorkSafeBC and now that we are returning to the water, we are also returning to collecting data for research. It's really important because without our collective eyes and professional eyes on the water, recognized by both Transport Canada and both governments on each side of the border, we are as a collective human race not even gathering information if we aren't out there." 

Balcomb-Bartok says the it is critical that whale watching operations have a presence and are respected for the roles that they play on the water, as they are providing a huge amount of information to the understanding of whale populations in the Salish Sea. 

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