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DFO wraps up probe into paddleboarder’s controversial 2021 B.C. orca encounter

After a year-long investigation, DFO has handed the file off to Crown counsel
A stand up paddleboarder kneels as a pod of transient orcas put on a dramatic show on Jan. 19, 2020 in the Ucluelet Harbour. (Westerly file photo)

A year-long investigation involving a Vancouver Island stand-up paddleboarder getting close to a pod of killer whales in Ucluelet Harbour is slowly coming to an end.

Last week, Tofino-based fishery officer Dan Smith said the file was handed off to Crown counsel, who will decide on whether to pursue any charges. He said the Crown should have a decision made within the next couple months.

The paddleboarder is being accused of allegedly violating the Marine Mammal Regulation, which prohibits vessels of any kind from approaching a killer whale within a 200-metre distance.

“Since there were no fishery officers there on the day to witness the incident, we had to go off video and photo evidence. We also had multiple witnesses that came forward,” said Smith, adding that Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) sent the photos of the incident to a digital forensics expert in Vancouver to determine the approach distance.

Many locals saw the paddleboarder on the water getting close to the whales during a Jan. 19, 2020, mid-morning appearance.

“There are also a couple boaters under investigation,” Smith said.

Fishery Officer Dan Smith is based out of Tofino.

Marine Mammal Regulations have since been enhanced to further protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales. On Dec. 29, 2021, the federal government declared a 400-metre approach distance for any killer whale in British Columbia coastal waters between Campbell River and Ucluelet until May 31, 2022.

“That basically means everything south of Wickaninnish Beach,” said Smith.

Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations, which require maintaining 200-metres away from killer whales, continue to apply year-round.

“With stand-up paddleboarding getting popular this is as much of an education thing. There are repercussions for pursuing these animals. Killer whales are highly intelligent and quite curious. If they are in the middle of hunting prey, they could come and bump you unintentionally,” he said.

“My best advice is to watch them from land or stay parallel and keep the 400-metre distance. Stay away and let them carry out their life processes without being interrupted.”

In a 2021 press release, Transport Canada said enforcement actions resulted in the issuance of 11 penalties totalling $45,750. The limited number of repeat violations reflects a successful educational campaign for boaters during the year, the statement reads.

Anyone that may have witnessed an incident of concern, is encouraged to call the DFO Incident Reporting Line at 1-800-465-4336.

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READ: B.C. whale-watching guide fined $10,000 for disturbing killer whales