Boating around British Columbia’s coastal waters is an opportunity to see and enjoy the beautiful ecosystems and wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, but there are new rules for boating in proximity to killer whales that you may not know about.

The Government of Canada announced new rules in May 2019 as part of its promise under the Whales Initiative of the Oceans Protection Plan to protect and support the recovery of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population. These new rules are in effect from June 1 to October 31 this year, and can be found online here . Before you leave the dock, know the rules — they can help save the whales, and save you from being fined!

Remember to keep your distance! You can be fined for getting too close to the whales. In certain areas, designated as the endangered Southern Resident killer whales’ critical habitat, where they tend to be most often, all boats must keep 400 metres away from all killer whales. The distance is equivalent to four football fields. The critical habitat area stretches from south-western Vancouver Island to the mouth of the Fraser River. Whale watching and ecotourism companies that have received authorization from the Minister of Transport can approach non-Southern Resident killer whales within 400 to 200 metres. These vessels display a special flag with the letters “AV”, which stands for Authorized Vessel, on a purple background.

Stay out of sanctuary zones: There are also specific whale interim sanctuary zones where they are known to feed, that boats cannot enter. These include certain sections of Swiftsure Bank, the east coast of Saturna Island, and south-west of North Pender Island. This means that there is no boating or fishing in these zones, though there are some exceptions, as these activities can disturb whales when they are looking for food. These areas are being monitored, and warning letters or fines are being sent to boaters who enter the zones. 

Don’t disturb! You can also take extra steps to avoid boat disturbance. Instead of going towards a group of killer whales, turn your boat’s engine to neutral-idle if it is safe to do so, and let the pod pass. Turn off your echo sounder when not in use to further decrease noise from your boat, and reduce your speed to less than 7 knots and avoid fishing when within 1,000 metres of killer whales. Be aware that there are fishery closures for recreational and commercial salmon fishing in the Gulf Islands and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Report reckless boater behavior. What do you do if you see reckless boating behavior around whales? In most instances, boaters simply just don’t know the rules, so we encourage readers to spread the word. You can also report suspected violators by calling Fisheries and Oceans Canada at 1-800-465-4336.

All these new rules are a lot to be aware of, but once you know what areas to avoid boating and fishing in, and remember to stay four football fields away from killer whales, it will make you a more responsible boater. And, it’s helping to save whales. Nobody likes to receive a fine, so know before you go. Enjoy your time on the water and stay safe. For more information, please visit: https://www.tc.gc.ca/en/campaigns/working-together/protecting-endangered-whales.html or contact Transport Canada at TC.SRKW-ERS.TC@tc.gc.ca.