The U.S. head of the Pacific Whale Watch Association was fined $1,000 after his whale watching tour crossed into Canadian waters that are closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jeff Friedman of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, based in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, said he was more than surprised when enforcement officers approached his boat on July 17, 1.5 miles over the border at Boundary Pass.
He was required to travel with his customers to a nearby Canadian customs office, where everyone’s identification was checked — and he was fined $1,000 for the crossing. Officials also ordered him back to the dock at Friday Harbor to clear U.S. customs.
The incident was the second time in recent weeks Canadian authorities have written $1,000 tickets for boaters not authorized to be across the border during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Friedman had been giving his six customers a look at endangered southern resident killer whales on the west side of San Juan Island but said he kept it to 10 minutes before breaking away to spend time with two families of Biggs killer whales, also called transient orcas.
The association voluntarily limits viewing to no more than five boats and no more than 20 to 30 minutes with the southern residents to reduce impact from whale watch tourism, Friedman said.
He said that in his mind, he was doing a good thing, heading north away from the southern resident orcas to go watch the Biggs, which are thriving in the region’s waters on a bounty of seals and other marine mammals.
The southern resident orcas, which eat almost exclusively salmon, primarily chinook, are threatened with extinction for a variety of reasons, including lack of adequate salmon and boat noise that makes it harder for them to hunt.
The state is in the process of devising the state’s first-ever limits and licensing for the whale watch industry, including restrictions on the number of vessels and amount of time commercial operators can spend watching the southern residents.
The border closure has created new complications for vessel captains already reeling from reduced business and half the seating for customers aboard tours due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The border closure also has been confusing, Friedman said, with Canadians allowed free passage into U.S. waters as long as they don’t stop at a port. But it’s not the other way around for U.S. boaters.
Friedman noted the enforcement action created the very cross-border human contact he had no intention of generating. He planned no port stop, or vessel contact in his brief stop, where he and his customers were shut down, just watching transient whales socialize.
“If this is all because of COVID-19, it seems the safest thing to do is say, ‘Hey, go back across the border,’ ” Friedman said. “The dumb thing is to take us back to port.”