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Cut in government funds leaves whale group on shore

Sep 13 2012

A non-profit group that keeps an eye on boaters and whale-watchers around Victoria and Alert Bay has been beached after being denied funding by Environment Canada

The Straitwatch program, run by the Cetus Research and Conservation Society, has two Zodiac boats and does on-the-water education and monitoring to reduce disturbances to the endangered southern resident and threatened northern resident killer whales.

It had received funding through Environment Canada's Habitat Stewardship Program for the past 10 years.

But on Tuesday evening, the organization received an email saying it had not been selected for funding this year.

"No specific reason was given," said Cetus spokeswoman Leah Thorpe. "It is a huge disappointment."

Cetus was forced to pull its boats out of the water last month - the busiest month on the water - because only $100,000 of the expected $300,000 in government funding had arrived.

"We used to find out about the funding decision by March but, in the last few years, it has been later in the season," Thorpe said.

Environment Canada could not be reached Wednesday afternoon, but Thorpe said every effort is being made to get an explanation in hopes that funding will be restored next year.

Cetus is launching a $300,000 fundraising campaign through website Indiegogo.com to provide an alternative to government funding.

"We are not giving up. We feel very strongly about the importance of our programs, especially since the monitoring we provide is listed as an action item in the recovery strategy for the endangered southern resident killer whales under Canada's Species at Risk Act," Thorpe said.

"Every day that we are out there providing monitoring and education, we help to take some of the pressure off these whales that's created by the large number of boats in the area."

Both the Canadian and U.S. governments have identified noise as one of the stressors facing the whales.

Soundwatch, a similar program to Straitwatch, is still running in U.S. waters and Soundwatch staff have said the lack of Canadian help is making their work more difficult, Thorpe said.

"It's very frustrating for us to hear about incidents like people getting too close to the whales or travelling too fast when the whales are around and we can't do anything about it," she said.

It is usually private boaters, unaware of the guidelines, who create problems, Thorpe said. "That's why we focus on education."

About 95 per cent of the Straitwatch budget comes from government agencies. Last year, the group received $326,000 through the Habitat Stewardship Program.

Cetus has organized two fundraising events: a "Porpoise Plunge" at Willows Beach in Oak Bay on Sept. 29, when participants will be invited to jump in the water; and a trivia night, Sept. 26 at Sopranos, 730 Caledonia Ave.

Any money raised will go toward trying to get the boats back on the water next season, even if it is only possible to do partial monitoring, Thorpe said.

For more information, go to cetussociety.org.

jlavoie@timescolonist.com