Transport Canada says it has issued 158 warnings and levied five fines totalling just over $24,000 for vessels in violation of distancing rules that protect the endangered southern resident orcas in the Salish Sea.
The federal agency was responding to a report Thursday by an environmental coalition that said whale-watching boats and fishing vessels are “routinely” ignoring the government’s 400-metre buffer.
The group, led by Straitwatch and the David Suzuki Foundation, said there was little enforcement present to protect the orcas, whose population has slipped to 73 after two deaths this summer.
“Transport Canada takes all alleged violations of the southern resident killer whale order very seriously and works with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Parks Canada, RCMP and Canadian Coast Guard to plan and execute compliance and enforcement regime to ensure effective enforcement of the measures,” it said in a statement.
The 158 warning letters it issued to boat owners in 2020 will remain part of the compliance history of vessels for five years, Transport Canada said.
Those who have received warning letters and violate the order can be subject to a fine or other enforcement action. Under the Canada Shipping Act, a penalty can carry fines ranging from $250,000 to $1 million and/or imprisonment up to a maximum of 18 months upon conviction.
Transport Canada issued the first administrative monetary penalty in 2020, and has issued four more so far in 2021, for a total of $24,750.
The agency did not name vessels or individuals or break down individual amounts of fines.
Several investigations are underway that could lead to additional penalties, it said.
The fine amount is based on the severity of the infraction, said Transport Canada, as each situation is assessed on a case-by-case basis. The agency said it also educates boaters through various print and online materials, social media and outreach with boating associations.
Straitwatch said in its report that enforcement of the distancing rules by officials is lacking, especially on the Canadian side.
Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife were present when the southern resident orcas were in U.S. waters about 20% of the time. Canadian enforcement vessels have been present on average 2% of the time, the report said.
In Canadian Salish Sea waters, whale-watching operators are obliged to forgo watching southern resident orcas under the Sustainable Whale Watch Agreement with Transport Canada. They are permitted to watch transient orcas within 200 metres.
However, Straitwatch said over seven days in 2020, Canadian operators were observed more than 30 times watching southern residents in Canadian waters for more than 30 minutes and, in some instances, for more than 60 minutes.