Overly-zealous whale watchers who harass endangered orcas were given fair warning Wednesday after a Quadra Island man was fined $7,500.
Carl Eric Peterson, 52, agreed to pay the precedent-setting fine after being convicted of disturbing marine mammals and harassing a threatened species – the first such conviction involving killer whales under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
“This is very important,” said federal prosecutor Larry Reynolds. “We’re trying to get the message out.”
The message is for all boaters to steer clear of killer whales and that’s exactly what Peterson did not do on Oct. 3, 2010.
“My mistake was what happened next,” Peterson wrote in a letter to the editor, which was part of his sentence (see below). “I decided to turn around and follow the whales out to the west of them to get a picture for my friend. This is what I did.”
Peterson had set out in his boat from Gowlland Harbour, near Quadra Island, when he encountered at least two orcas approaching him in Discovery Passage.
The encounter was also witnessed by federal fisheries officers Carlos Paramio and Greg Askey. During the trial, held exactly one year ago, Paramio testified the whales surfaced approximately 60 metres ahead of the boat and then Peterson accelerated towards them.
“As (Peterson) got closer to the whales, they dived and the boat slowed somewhat. The activity of the whales and the boat occurred at least four or five times, the boat getting closer each time. On the last…the boat was 15 to 25 metres behind the whales,” wrote Judge Brian Saunderson, in his decision handed down last August in Campbell River provincial court.
According to whale watching guidelines, boaters are expect to remain at least 400 metres away from orcas, front or back, and 100 metres laterally.
When Peterson turned his boat around and left the whales, the fisheries officers followed, stopped him and later charged him.
At trial, the Crown heavily relied on research provided by whale expert Dr. John Ford of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
In a document entitled “Impact statement regarding vessel disturbance of killer whales,” Dr. Ford wrote:
“There is substantial scientific evidence that close approaches to killer whales by vessels have the potential to disturb or disrupt the normal behaviour patterns of these animals…such disturbance can cause short-term disruption behaviours such as resting, feeding, socializing and mother/calf interactions such as nursing.”
In this case, Ford testified there was a “very high probability” the killer whales were disturbed and harassed.
He also said it was likely the whales were part of the northern resident orcas which are listed as “threatened” under the Species at Risk Act – southern resident killer whales are listed as “endangered.”
At Peterson’s sentencing hearing, held Wednesday in Campbell River provincial court, Reynolds told the court the $7,500 fine would go to the federal “Environmental Damages Fund.” The money was earmarked for orca education, research or conservation on the West Coast.
“It’s something to put back, restorative justice if you like,” the Crown prosecutor said.
He also noted the fine could have been higher – the maximum fine is $100,000 under the Act – but was mitigated by Peterson’s letter of warning (see letter above) to the public to steer clear.
Reynolds added it is important for all boaters to understand the seriousness of the Act and the government’s commitment to enforce regulations.
“I expect it will effect people in this community. It will get the message out,” said Judge Saunderson.
Defence lawyer Bruce Preston said the fine is a “substantial hardship” on Peterson and asked for two years to pay the $7,500.
Judge Saunderson gave him one year and concluded by suggesting that Peterson, “avoid two species in the future – one endangered and one not – killer whales and lawyers.”
As part of his sentence, and in addition to the $7,500 fine, Carl Peterson wrote this public letter entitled “This could happen to you,” and submitted it to the Mirror:
On October 3, 2010, I was exiting Gowlland Harbour on Quadra Island in my boat and I had turned south with the intention of proceeding to a boat ramp on Vancouver Island.
As I proceeded south along Quadra Island, I was met by a group of whales swimming north, pushed along by a moderately strong ebb tide. I stopped and let the whales pass.
My mistake was what happened next.
I decided to turn around and follow the whales out to the west of them to get a picture for my friend. This is what I did.
The entire event lasted approximately three to four minutes. As a result, I was charged and I had to go to court.
At the trial the judge found that I got too close to the whales – within 100 metres – and even though the whales showed no effects of having been disturbed or harassed, I was found guilty on the basis of expert witness Dr. Ford’s evidence that there was a strong probability that they were.
– Carl Peterson