Canada: Whale protection unlikely to increase

23rd Jul 2002 Story: www.canada.com

The federal Fisheries Department is unlikely to increase protection of marine mammals near Prince Rupert after a possible incident involving a baby whale and a commercial fishing vessel.

According to conflicting reports, a young humpback whale became tangled with a gillnetter in the mouth of Work Channel last week.

Initial accounts said the whale died but David Einarson, the Fisheries Department's area chief of resource management for the North Coast, said it now appears the whale escaped.

"Whales have a pretty good avoidance mechanism but maybe a young one got confused," Einarson said.

"It sounds like it got entangled but it was released and swam away."

However, local groups point to the encounter as one of the first warning signs of the dangers of commercial fishing in nearby Work Channel and are lobbying for a "net exclusion zone" to safeguard the animals.

But while the federal government is not ruling out further prohibitions to harvesting in the area, Einarson said it would be premature to contemplate moving ahead.

"Certainly if it was an ongoing problem we'd look at things like that but a one-of thing, there's no point in closing an area if it's an accident that could happen anywhere."

Doug Davis, a tour operator with West Coast Launch, believes the government is downplaying the problem.

Work Channel's particular configuration makes it a prime feeding ground for whales, and after nearly a decade-long absence they seem to be returning more consistently, Davis said.

"It's 1,800 feet deep right off Work Channel and it flushes out with quite a velocity of tide and it stirs up a lot of feed," he said.

"The whales swim in the narrows with their mouths open -- a lot of times you've got six, seven whales feeding.

"These are not transient whales. The cows are bringing their calves back into the area, and they're finding 200 gillnetters parked outside Work Channel. We've got to give these whales some space."

Davis said it's not the first time he's clashed over the area with the Fisheries Department.

"Last year, someone set up helicopter log dumps right over where the whales were feeding," he said.

"It went back and forth a bit but apparently if it's under two weeks and temporary, they don't have to get a permit. The first thing people'll say is this is because I'm a tour operator. It's not. I like humpback whales and someone has to speak up for them."

© Copyright 2002 Canadian Press