Mixed response to proposed sanctuary in Sheet Harbour

By Janice Christie    
December 18 2019

SHEET HARBOUR – The Mushaboom site being considered for a new whale sanctuary along the Eastern Shore may have the ideal physical attributes that project proponents are looking for – including a deep harbour protected by islands – but community support may not be enough to bring the sanctuary here.

A packed house at the Sheet Harbour Legion Monday night included those opposed to the sanctuary project, which is designed to find a new home for previously captive belugas. The discussion, heated at times, began with representatives of the U.S.-based Whale Sanctuary Project presenting their plans for the sanctuary to the more than 200 attendees. Their remarks including answers to concerns they’ve already heard from the community around the fishery and recreational boating in the area.

Fishers and other residents of Mushaboom referred to their community as their own sanctuary and their desire to maintain their way of life in solitude and serenity.

Concern was also raised about the potential increased traffic flow due to construction and the eventual draw of tourists to the area.

Some noted that specific timelines and opportunities could be arranged for the public to visit the site. Residents said they did not want bus loads of tourists arriving in Mushaboom.

"I suggest the option of visiting the site by boat only... operated by off-season local fishers being the tour guides and boat operators,” said resident Peter Oickle. “Shuttle buses could be offered, but with limited numbers. It's not over until you look at all the options to address the concerns."

Questions were also raised about the impact the whales’ waste may have on the environment and the lobster fishery.

Lori Marino of the Whale Sanctuary Project explained the biology of the mammals and how their waste is mostly liquid. She said there would be minimal impact from the potentially eight whales at the site.

"There’s no difference from the marine life that already exists,” she said. “What goes on inside the nets is what goes on outside the nets.”

In response to a concern raised about contraceptives used for the animals, Marino said these are hand fed with the whales’ food and absorbed into the body.

A suggestion was made by local resident Steven Barkhouse to have all same sex whales on site to negate the necessity of contraceptives.

Marino responded, "That could be a possibility but not guaranteed."

Residents also wanted to know what plans were in place for recapturing whales that may escape the netted area and what would happen with damage to the nets from hurricanes.

Charles Vinick of the Whale Sanctuary Project explained they would use very strong materials for netting that had been used and tested in various areas throughout the world and had stood the test of storms.

"They have experienced up to 120-knot winds,” he said. “Some infrastructure was destroyed but the nets remained."

Vinick added, “Through testing it was shown captive whales consider the humans who care for them their pod and if they escaped the confines of the netting they will turn around and go back to get fed."

Pleasure boaters enjoy the beauty of the area and although a compromise was suggested for opening the passage through the area, known as The Gates, in the boating season, it was not well received by recreational boaters.

"Since the first meeting in February we have listened and tried to come up with solutions,” said Vinick. “Re-opening The Gates in the summer season is one such possible solution."

A group of residents from the Mushaboom area held up signs with a picture of a beluga, a circle around it and a line drawn across the mammal with the words “No Whale Sanctuary” and “No Belugas.”

Others want to see the sanctuary come to the area. Duncan MacMillan High School student Matthew Hogg spoke about his experience meeting people who visited his parents’ B&B.

"Visitors love the water and would enjoy the idea of kayaking and boating,” he said. “The Whale Sanctuary intrigues me and I hope that it would entice people from around the world to come here to visit, to work...and live here. I hope the community who raised me will welcome the sanctuary and all it has to offer."

Vinick spoke about possible spinoff projects, such as an interpretative centre in Sheet Harbour, boat tours and educational opportunities with cameras installed above and below the water.

"This first-of-a-kind (sanctuary) in North America will be seen as a model,” he said. “Please understand the respect we have for you and for what you do. We appreciate all comments and need to understand your concerns."

Once the site is selected, the proponents will seek the provincial permits required, including environmental approval, for the $20 million initiative. The Whale Sanctuary Project has some of the funding in place for the facility now and is confident in its ability to raise the remainder, without government or community investment.

In closing, Vinick stated, "For us to consider going forward we would need future consultation with residents of Mushaboom."

He provided his contact information and asked for a small group meeting with those willing to continue to discuss the project. If the project is deemed viable in Mushaboom, future consultations would take place.

"We are not forcing anything on anyone,” he said. “All we are asking for is dialogue. We intend to make a decision sooner rather than later."