Whale-watching outfits warned on border crossings

Whale-watching companies on both sides of the border are being extra vigilant with their GPS co-ordinates in the Salish Sea after a U.S. vessel was fined and a Canadian boat was told to turn back by American authorities in the past week.

The Canadian border with the U.S. is closed to all non-essential crossings, including on the water.

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The Pacific Whale Watch Association said Thursday there is now “clarity” and a consensus when it comes to where whale watchers can operate. The association is based in Friday Harbor, Washington and has members on both sides of the international boundary.

“We’re asking both sides to respect the border and stay in our respective playgrounds,” Kelley Balcomb-Bartok, communications manager for the association, said in an interview.

He said that while Canada has been specific about closing the border to recreational boat traffic, the U.S. policy “wasn’t as absolute” on Canadian whale watchers in U.S. waters. He said the U.S. was still going by the Right of Innocent Passages Act, which allows whale watchers to stray over the boundary once in a while, provided they don’t anchor.

“Now, as a policy, the Pacific Northwest Whale Watching Association is saying there’s no crossing the border either way,” said Balcomb-Bartok. “There are some grey areas and some concerns, but I think everyone recognizes that [with COVID-19] there is a risk.”

The operator of a U.S. whale-watching vessel was fined $1,000 under the Quarantine Act on July 17 after being discovered by the RCMP in Canadian waters near the San Juan Islands.

RCMP spokesman Cpl. Daniel Michaud said the whale-watching vessel was identified and stopped by members of the Mounties’ Pacific Shiprider Program. The boat, with passengers, was escorted back to U.S. waters.

At around the same time, a Prince of Whales vessel from Victoria was stopped inside American waters by the U.S. Coast Guard and told to return to Canada.

Ian MacPhee, controller for Prince of Whales, said the vessel and passengers were escorted back to the Canadian side without a fine. “Whales don’t respect international boundaries,” said MacPhee.

Whale-watching companies already follow strict guidelines on how close they can get to whales.

Brett Soberg, who owns Eagle Wing Tours in Victoria, said suspension of the Innocent Passage Act adds another layer of difficulty for the industry, which is already struggling due to drastically reduced passenger counts with the border closed to American tourists.

“The other day, we were off Jordan River on the border and saw a humpback about a half a mile away … all we could do was point.”

Balcomb-Bartok noted coast guard and other law-enforcement vessels from both countries have had a heavy presence on the water over the past week, so whale watchers and other boaters should be mindful of their co-ordinates.

An RCMP statement said boaters found illegally in Canadian waters could face fines, seizure of their vessels and/or criminal charges.

After being served with a fine, offending boaters will be sent out of Canadian waters and could face restrictions on future access.

Quarantine Act offences could lead to up to six months in prison and/or $750,000 in fines.

The Pacific Shiprider Program targets potential offending vessels using technology or regular ocean patrols and works with both countries’ border agencies, coast guards and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

The program conducts maritime patrols and traditionally investigates the activities of organized-crime groups, but during the pandemic, it has turned its attention to enforcing the Quarantine Act.

On July 10, the operator of another U.S.-based vessel was charged under Section 58 of the Quarantine Act and fined.

“It was clear the persons on this vessel had misstated their intention to travel to Alaska and had entered Canada for the purposes of tourism,” Michaud said in a statement.

“Boaters are not allowed within Canadian territorial or boundary waters for discretionary, leisure [non-essential] reasons, including touring, sightseeing and pleasure fishing.”

dkloster@timescolonist.com

— With files from the Vancouver Sun

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