Whale watching operators, recreational fishers routinely violating protection zone buffers and other measures put in place to protect Southern Resident killer whales

Federal enforcement and violator prosecution lacking, rendering current measures ineffective.

A Straitwatch report hovers over a Southern Resident killer whale swims by Saturna Island and exhales beside the shore and kelp.
Photo taken from land on Saturna Island, by Miles Ritter.

Coast Salish Territories — Canadian whale watching operators and recreational fishers are routinely violating the protection buffer zones between their vessels and endangered Southern Resident killer whales, and are even crossing into U.S. waters to pursue these whales.

David Suzuki Foundation, Georgia Strait Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and WWF-Canada are calling for increased enforcement, prosecutions and penalties to deter the bad actions of a few in the whale watching and recreational fishing industries. The 73 endangered whales are struggling to survive, as evidenced by the very recent deaths of population members K-21 and L-47.

Annual Interim Orders to protect killer whales issued by Transport Canada require all watercraft vessels to stay at least 400 metres away from Southern Resident killer whales in B.C. coastal waters, from Campbell River to Ucluelet.

Yet during 12 out of 24 days of monitoring the whales in the summer of 2020, Canadian whale watching operators were observed 84 times within 400m of Southern Resident killer whales, according to a summary report from Straitwatch, a Canadian marine mammal and vessel behaviour monitoring program. In nearly a third of these instances, operators came within 100m or 200m of the whales. Over the same season, a total of 51 recreational fishing vessels were observed within 400m of Southern Residents, with 28 of those within 200m.  

“The order for staying 400m away from these whales needs to be adequately enforced by the government,” says Hussein Alidina, WWF-Canada’s lead specialist for marine conservation. “At a time when endangered Southern Residents need this space for their wellbeing, the behaviour of whale watchers and recreational fishers around these whales is unacceptable, as is the lack of enforcement.”

The regularity of these violations and the stark lack of enforcement is particularly problematic. 

“Canada doesn’t have enough eyes on the water around Southern Residents,” says Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation. “Fisheries and Oceans Canada needs to be present when endangered whales are in the Salish Sea.”

In Canadian Salish Sea waters, whale watch industry operators are obligated to forgo whale watching Southern Resident killer whales under the Sustainable Whale Watch Agreement with Transport Canada. However, over seven days in 2020, Canadian operators were observed more than 30 times watching Southern Residents in Canadian waters for over 30 minutes and, in some instances, for more than 60 minutes. This indicates that operators continue to target these whales for viewing rather than transiting away from them as required by their agreement.

“Whale watching and recreational fishing representatives said they could be trusted to stay away from resident orcas in exchange for special privileges to view non-resident orcas and keep fishing. But this report shows how many broke that trust—and the law—putting these endangered whales in harm’s way,” says Jeffery Young, senior science and policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation. “It’s time the federal government fully prosecutes the worst offenders.”

“Without strong enforcement, even the best policies can end up being weak,” says Michael Jasny, director of marine mammal protection at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “While efforts have improved over time, it’s clear that more stringent enforcement is needed to ensure that the safeguards our government put in place for the whales are respected on the water.”

Furthermore, Canadian whale watching operators weren’t only watching Southern Resident killer whales locally; they were also crossing into U.S. waters. In total (Canada and the U.S.), they were observed watching Southern Residents 180 times over the 12 days of monitoring in 2020, viewing these whales for more than 30 minutes. 

“For Canadian commercial whale watch operators to be crossing into U.S. jurisdictions to view Southern Residents is the opposite of refraining from watching these endangered whales,” says Christianne Wilhelmson, executive director of Georgia Strait Alliance. “Canadian operators who are pursuing Southern Resident orcas into – and in – U.S. waters, should have their authorizations revoked under the Sustainable Whale Watch Agreement.”

David Suzuki Foundation

Founded in 1990, the David Suzuki Foundation is a national, bilingual non-profit organization headquartered in Vancouver, with offices in Toronto and Montreal. Through evidence-based research, education and policy analysis, we work to conserve and protect the natural environment, and help create a sustainable Canada, www.davidsuzuki.org.

Georgia Strait Alliance

Formed in 1990, Georgia Strait Alliance is the only conservation group working to protect and restore the marine environment and promote the sustainability of Georgia Strait, its adjoining waters and communities, www.georgiastrait.org.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)

NRDC is an international non-profit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health, and the environment. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Raincoast is a team of scientists and conservationists dedicated to safeguarding the lands, waters and wildlife of coastal British Columbia, www.raincoast.org.


WWF-Canada is committed to equitable and effective conservation actions that restore nature, reverse wildlife loss and fight climate change. We draw on scientific analysis and Indigenous guidance to ensure all our efforts connect to a single goal: a future where wildlife, nature and people thrive. For more information visit wwf.ca