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Churchill tour operators sue feds over whale rules

Mike Macri / Sea North Tours Files</p><p>Churchill tour operators want clarity on rules governing how close they can get to beluga whales.</p></p>

Mike Macri / Sea North Tours Files

Churchill tour operators want clarity on rules governing how close they can get to beluga whales.

OTTAWA — The MP for Churchill supports her formal political rival, one of the town’s whale-tour operators who is part of a lawsuit over new federal regulations.

The operators claim the changes will ruin an attraction that lures thousands of international tourists to Manitoba.

“The rules need to reflect the reality in Churchill,” NDP MP Niki Ashton said.

“There needs to be a clear recognition that this is a community that’s been pounded. It’s taken a hit in so many ways.”

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OTTAWA — The MP for Churchill supports her formal political rival, one of the town’s whale-tour operators who is part of a lawsuit over new federal regulations.

The operators claim the changes will ruin an attraction that lures thousands of international tourists to Manitoba.

"The rules need to reflect the reality in Churchill," NDP MP Niki Ashton said.

"There needs to be a clear recognition that this is a community that’s been pounded. It’s taken a hit in so many ways."

Last month, Ottawa published rules on the distance boat operators must keep from whales, walruses and other species across the country.

For Churchill, it prescribes a 50-metre clearance for boats to approach beluga whales.

Wally Daudrich has unsuccessfully contested Ashton’s seat in Parliament. He now leads the Churchill Beluga Whale Tour Operator Association and argues the new rules threaten a key draw to a remote town that is hurting from its lack of a rail link to the south.

He has said belugas in the area get curious and often swim right up to boats, unlike in Nunavut, where they are hunted.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) has stressed in interviews the regulations only involve the "approach distance," meaning that boats can’t go close to the whales, but can float nearby and let whales swim over.

Daudrich says DFO has ignored several requests to write that distinction down.

"That’s all we’re asking for, is clarification. They refuse to answer," he said. "We can’t operate on a promise and a prayer. We need something in writing."

Ashton said that if Ottawa answered such a simple request, the tour operators wouldn’t have to go to court.

"This boils down to the fact that the federal government has abandoned Churchill and refuses to listen to the people of Churchill on a number of fronts," Ashton said.

Belugas in the Churchill area are not considered endangered, while the conservation group Oceans North has separately noted that local tour operators focus on small-scale and eco-friendly tours.

When the government published its regulations a month ago, tour operators went public with reams of letters and emails to federal officials. They appeared to receive scant response despite intervention from the Manitoba government.

On July 19, Daudrich’s lawyer filed an application for a judicial review in Federal Court, arguing the changes will "impair or destroy" their business, leaving "a severe adverse economic impact on the community of Churchill." The application claims federal officials didn’t give fair notice of the rules and acted in bad faith.

None of those claims have been proven in court. The government has not yet filed a response.

Daudrich fears the regulations will ward off international tourists who believe they can no longer get up close to belugas, and it’s unclear whether kayak and canoe tours are illegal because of the change.

That has Ashton reiterating her call for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit the town, to better understand its plight and how the Liberals should respond.

"If they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem."

Last month, DFO told the Free Press it had met with multiple stakeholders in Churchill while crafting the regulations.

Yet, it appears that of the four whale-tour companies in the town, DFO officials had met with the only one that doesn’t actually put boats in the water, but instead contracts marine excursions to the other three companies, whom DFO said it "also contacted."

Ashton said that’s puzzling. "There needs to be proper consultation."

DFO had first floated similar regulations in 2015 during the Conservative government, but shelved them after the outcry from tour operators followed by that fall’s federal election.

This summer is the first time Canada has had rules about how close boats can get to beluga whales, the federal government said. Rules about swimming with marine wildlife have been in place for years.

Located 1,000 kilometres north of Winnipeg, Churchill lost its railway link in May 2017 after a spring storm caused flooding. Ottawa has pledged to restore rail service "before winter 2018," but the window for repairs is closing, and the province recently ordered a contingency shipment of propane for the coming winter.

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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