First whales should arrive by next year

·4 min read

PORT HILFORD – COVID-19 may have delayed the opening of North America’s first sanctuary for formerly captive whales, but the project’s executive director is confident as many as eight belugas will be frolicking happily in the waters of Port Hilford Bay by the end of 2022.

Charles Vinick, head of the U.S.-based Whale Sanctuary Project, made the prediction during a 30-minute video presentation from California to the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s committee of the whole March 17.

“Given where we are today, we are still targeting welcoming the first whales by the end of 2022,” he said. “A year ago, you heard me saying [it would be] by the end of 2021. COVID-19 changed all of that.”

While the opening still depends on the progress of negotiations for permits and leases underway with the provincial and federal governments, and ongoing fundraising, he said, “I’m optimistic,” adding with a smile, “I’m getting older and I don’t have any time to waste.”

In one of the most detailed outlines of the project yet, Vinick confirmed the sanctuary’s new site, extent and design specifications, and even its expected labour force.

“The spot for the sanctuary is the area closest to Barachois Island, down by the wharf,” he said. “It encompasses 110 acres, or 45 hectares of water space, and 33 acres of land under a purchase agreement. Our main access point to our building infrastructure, which will be close to the wharf, will be Barachois Road. Public access would be greatly controlled.”

In the water, the sanctuary’s boundaries will encompass demarked buffer lines designed to keep boats 100 meters away from nets and other infrastructure.

“We will have full-time security with boats to maintain that buffer and on land [to make sure we know] what’s coming in the way of critters and people.” he said. “Overall, the marine operations and security team will be about six people, working in shifts. We’ll also have our animal husbandry staff … so about 20 people all told.”

He added that securing water rights for the site still requires provincial consent: “Any submerged land is considered Crown land, so that’s the lease process we are going through now – for lease of the water space, as well as access to the Crown land [to which] the sanctuary’s perimeter will actually attach. “

Vinick reported that the past year has been chock full with consultations and collaborations with a variety of stakeholders and potential partners.

“We’ve met with more than 20 scientists and researchers from around the Maritimes to discuss our work and theirs,” he said. “We have completed a full hydrodynamic model of the bay, with Nova Scotia Community College, which really shows us how the current, tides and storm conditions move, and tells us how to install the nets and work within the [marine location].

“None of the scientists have had any serious concerns about what we are doing – about the approach or the strategies we’ve developed for dealing with any issues that could come up. They are willing to work with us and want to see this project come to reality,” Vinick added.

He also noted the WSP has had several “informal” consultations with Mi’kmaq First Nations.

“I’ve had some meetings with [Paqtnkek Chief and Assembly of First Nations] Regional Vice-Chief Paul Prosper. So, all of that is going quite well,” Vinick said.

Overall, he noted, “We’ve received tremendous support from St. Mary’s. This could not be a better place for a whale sanctuary … Port Hilford is receiving worldwide attention and that speaks so well for all of you and the work that we are doing.”

Following the presentation, Councillor Beulah Malloy asked whether the whales’ feces could cause problems for beachgoers in the area.

“All animals poop, including people,” Vinick said. “That is, however, a critically important question for us and the community. All of the hydrodynamic modelling shows that any waste will dissipate in the environment [and go out to sea]. That’s why we are suggesting only eight whales.”

Warden Greg Wier wondered whether the whales would run out of food in the wild.

“These whales have been fed thawed frozen fish all of their lives, so we will be a customer of frozen fish, usually capelin and herring, which we will then thaw and give to the whales,” he said, adding, “An adult beluga whale eats 18 to 25 kilograms of fish a day. If we had eight whales, we would be purchasing a ton of food a week.”

Vinick also noted the WSP’s long-term commitment to the sanctuary.

“Our obligation is to ensure that we have the funds to ensure that we care for the whales for their lifetime,” he said. “When we bring any whale to the sanctuary, it is incumbent on us to have the [financial] support to care for them throughout their lives (up to 60 years in the wild for a beluga).”

Deputy Warden James Fuller moved that council “write a conceptual agreement” to support the project as it continues during the lease and permitting stage of negotiations with government. The motion, seconded by Councillor James Harpell, was approved.

Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Guysborough Journal