Researchers, First Nations call for change after multiple humpbacks hit along B.C. coast

Researchers, First Nations call for change after multiple humpbacks hit along B.C. coast

Local First Nations and researchers are voicing their concern after another humpback whale appears to have been hit off B.C.’s coast.

“On August 29, a humpback whale surfaced ahead of the Northern Expedition. The crew put the engines in reverse however they suspect they made vessel contact with the whale,” said Deborah Marshall, a spokesperson for BC Ferries told CHEK News in a statement.

It’s the second time in just over a month BC Ferries has struck a whale along the Prince Rupert/Port Hardy route.

“On July 20th, while sailing in the Wright Sound, the Northern Expedition likely made contact with a whale, which is devastating not only to the crew involved but to BC Ferries as a company,” said Marshall. “Our crew immediately alerted the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and we are cooperating fully with their review.”

BC Ferries ships aren’t the only large vessels that have been involved in a humpback collision. Researcher Jackie Hildering has been made aware of several others involving a large catamaran ferry, and a cruise ship.

“We know there have been four large vessel hits since July 20,” said Hildering, who works with the Canadian Humpback Whale Collaboration.

And those are just the large vessels. In the last two months, researchers say altogether they’ve been made aware of roughly 10 whale strikes.

Dramatic video posted by the Marine Education & Research Society (MERS) shows the moment a speedboat hit a humpback named Harlequin near Campbell River three weeks ago on Aug 11.

So far it’s the only case where the identity of the humpback is known. According to MERS, Harlequin is being monitored by local whale watchers and CETUS Research and Conservation Society’s group called Straitwatch.

DFO says they could not immediately respond to how many whale strikes have been reported to them this summer.

Researchers and First Nations say the strikes they do know about highlight the need for change on the waters for all boaters.

“The Inside Passage on the Central to North Coast is an area where humpbacks come back to feed. There hasn’t been adaptation yet in where we go or how fast we go,” said Hildering.

The Gitga’at First Nation, whose territory is where the BC Ferries strikes have happened, is taking a harder line.

“Gitga’at is deeply disturbed about whale strikes by ships in our territory. Even a single whale’s death is unacceptable,” said the Gitga’at First Nation in a statement.

“We have seen whales nearly wiped out by commercial whaling. And in recent decades we have seen a tremendous recovery of whale numbers,” said the Nation. “The recent strikes clearly demonstrate measures need to be implemented to avoid any further deaths.”

Gitga’at says with shipping traffic in the North Coast waters expected to increase, especially as the LNG Canada facility goes online, they’ve been working with the shipping industry on shipping guidelines in their waterways.

Researchers say they may have the information that can inform a solution.

“These are whales that come back to specific locations to feed. This is all predictable, which is part of the good news around being able to avoid collisions,” said Hildering. “Researchers and Nations know these whales and know where there will be hot spots, areas of known densities.”

Hildering says slower speeds for vessels should be mandated, and is hoping big corporations like BC Ferries will lead the way in that change. 

BC Ferries, while not speaking to vessel speed, said they intend to collaborate with DFO and researchers on new technology available to help improve monitoring and detection.

Federal law requires all collisions and entanglements with humpbacks, a species at risk, to be reported to the DFO at 1-800-465-4336.

Tips for avoiding collisions with whales:

  • Watch for blows, and birds on the water as a sign of feeding in the area.
  • Humpbacks can be feeding, socializing, or resting and sleeping just below the surface. They remain submerged for 15 to 20 minutes and often exhibit random travel patterns.
  • Go slow. Whales may surface without warning and can be difficult to avoid, especially if boaters are travelling quickly.
  • If the area is known for whales, use increased vigilance.
  • Watch for vessels flying the whale-warning flag.
  • Signal commercial vessels to the presence of whales through the use of the Whale Report Alert System app.
Kori SidawayKori Sidaway

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