Without local fishers' support, whale sanctuary would not be coming

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
March 4 2020

SHERBROOKE – Port Hilford’s selection as the first sanctuary on the continent for captive and injured beluga whales promises undeniable economic boons for the St. Mary’s area, but that’s not what anyone was talking about at a packed, post-announcement celebration in Sherbrooke last week.

“There wasn’t a single question about economics,” said Stephen Flemming, Executive Director of the Sherbrooke Village Museum, which worked with the California-based Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP) to secure the site’s selection. “Nothing. That’s not what was driving this at all. That’s not what people were thinking about.”

In fact, he said, what was top of mind at the gathering in this Eastern Shore community -- that’s made news around the world since the press conference in Halifax last week, -- was the welfare of the whales and the local men and women whose early support first catalyzed their neighbours’ approval: the fishers, themselves.

“They could have gone a completely different way,” Flemming noted. “But what they did by opening up to this whole idea was create a space for the whole community...That’s space for the whale sanctuary, and for the world to think about what we do now and how we interact with cetaceans. It started with them, and that’s amazing.”

In his message to the crowd, Flemming mentioned a few by name: Hughie and Helen MacDonald, Doug and Jody MacDonald, Thane and Cindy Jordan, Freeman and Sharon Reed, and Floyd and Chrystal Fourlough. “Without their willingness to be open to this new idea, none of us would be sitting here this evening,” he said.

At the Halifax announcement, local volunteer organizer Amy Simon echoed this sentiment. “All of this is because of our fishers and the local community, because of their support and their joy and their inspiration,” she said. “That was their motivation and that’s why we’re here. That’s why this is possible.”

Flemming confirmed the fishers’ welfare will remain central to the unfolding project. “We would never want to put them in a position where they feel pressured,” he said. “This is about finding a way for everybody.”

Though economic considerations may still be secondary, there’s little doubt the WSP will have a measurable impact on the entire St. Mary’s area. The next steps will involve working with local fishers and other community members to further define the vision for the whale sanctuary, and to initiate the regulatory processes needed to ready the site for whales by the end of 2021.

In a press release last year, WSP Executive Director Charles Vinick said, “Once the infrastructure (has) been built, the whales will require a good deal of care. They will be coming from living in concrete tanks, unable to care for themselves. They don't even know how to catch their own food. The animal care team, including veterinarians and trainers, will be necessary to work with them on a daily basis – whether for feeding, medical care or rehabilitation.”

Said Simon, “I think we’re going to see a lot of spin-offs. But, to me, it’s bigger than that. We are making our footprint on the global shift in thinking about cetaceans living in confinement.”