Taken from the Times Globe, Friday, August 28/98

A minke whale surfaces near a whale-watching boat
in the Bay of Fundy off Brier Island, N.S., in this 1996 photo

Too Many Chasers
Fewer whales and more whale-watching boats could spell trouble for the sensitive animals. One environmentalist blames the province.

By Mike Hawkins
Times Globe staff writer

    The pressure to give whale watchers bang for their buck is making for increased pressure on the whales.
    More whale watch companies than ever before are filling their boats with passengers eager to get a close-up look at the natural phenomenon in the Bay of Fundy.
    But a downturn in the number of the whales to view this year means more boats are crowding around what few whales are available.
    In some cases it's testing the limits of the industry's new Code of Ethics.
    Deborah Tobin, public education co-ordinator for East Coast Ecosystems in Tiverton, N.S., says there haven't been any official complaints filed on the problem, but she's not surprised the issue has arisen.
    "There are less right whales here than people have sort of become used to in the last couple of years," Ms. Tobin said.
    Right whales are one of the most endangered animals on the planet and most of their population lives in the Bay of Fundy. As a result, the right whale has become a primary market tool for whale watching on both coasts of the Bay of Fundy.
    Since 1993, right whales have been migrating to the Bay of Fundy in ever-increasing numbers. The increasing presence of the rare animal has been a boon for the whale watching industry.
    This year, their numbers have dropped, a normal occurrence, Ms. Tobin said, but the numbers of whale watchers has increased.
    And a government initiative to increase business for whale-watching may be feeding the problem, she said.
    "I've talked to people at New Brunswick Tourism about this whole marketing thing that they've been doing. Putting big, breaching right whales on the cover of brochures is building up an unreasonable expectation," she said.
    Now that the numbers have dropped, the industry may begin to feel the pressure to downsize as well.
    "I think there will be a natural sorting out of this. Not everyone's going to be able to stay in business,' she said.
    David Welch of Fundy Tide Runners said the drop in whale population is obvious when he considers last year's sightings. The dip is probably primarily due to a lack of herring that many of the whales feed on, he said.
    "In closer to land, we haven't had a sort of bumper crop as we did last year," Mr. Welch said.
    Too many boats around too few whales is exactly the type of behavior that the industry's code of ethics was developed to prevent but it's becoming difficult to adhere to for some whale watch companies and other boaters.
    Mr. Welch said his company and others he knows of in the St. Andrews area are strict followers of the code of ethics they signed last year. That Code of Ethics was prepared by East Coast Ecosystems and the provincial government.
    The problem he has seen involves too many pleasure boats and some whale watchers that he deems less ethical than the majority.
    Especially on weekends, Mr. Welch says his boat is often in the same area as many other whale watchers and pleasure boats.
    According to the code of ethics, if more than three boats are around a whale at a given time, they must stay 300 yards away from it. When there are only one or two boats in the area of a whale the boat can be within a hundred yards of the animal and their engines shut down for viewing.
    "That makes it difficult on our side from a business point of view in that you're trying to show your customers whales but you have to stay considerably further away when there are more boats" he said. On some days, he tells his customers up front that it is unlikely they will get closer than 300 yards to a whale due to the expected traffic, he added.
    "I think that most of the professional whale watchers in this area are very aware that if there is five boats watching a minke whale, that some one had better back off and go look for something else. And it happens all the time," he said.
    Regulation and education will help to curb the problem, he said.
    His industry is one of very few he knows of that are very loosely controlled. The only restrictions whale watch companies face is the number of people they can take on board a given boat. Their behavior on the water is self-policed and Mr. Welch says that's not enough for an industry that's growing so quickly and affects such a sensitive environment.
    "It's not the first time and it's certainly not the last time that there would be more boats than desired," he said.