Tuesday, May 18, 2021

‘We’ve got a site!’

Whale Sanctuary Project secures location

  • March 10 2021
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    

PORT HILFORD – With an agreement in principle to purchase more than 100 acres of prime coastline near Wine Harbour, the Whale Sanctuary Project (WSP) took a giant leap forward last week in its plan to establish North America’s first wild refuge for formerly captive belugas.

“Oh yeah, we’ve got a site!” declared WSP Executive Director Charles Vinick in a telephone interview from California. Sounding triumphant, but also grateful, he added: “You know the fishermen have always been supporters of this project, but they were really rolling up our sleeves with us on this one. So, while no one is surprised by that support, it is terrific.”

Vinick said the site encompasses the coastal environs of Barachois Island to Rocky Point, near the mouth of Port Hilford Bay. What’s more, he noted: “We have an agreement that the waters, including the wharf there, won’t be used [by the local area’s fishermen] once we have the sanctuary in place. It will be reserved for the whales.”

Although the property’s seller could not be reached for comment, Vinick confirmed that the “agreement in principle with the primary landowner” also depends on “various benchmarks.”

“We have to have all the permitting in place. It’s an agreement that we have all agreed to; it just won’t be exercised until we meet all of the permitting, go through all of the steps. And that will take time,” he explained

Vinick said the WSP is now “into stage two” of permitting with the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forestry, which includes submitting a formal development plan. “This opens it up to the rest of the agencies of government who have to review what we are doing, he said, adding: “We are making real progress. We have encouragement from MLA Lloyd Hines and other government officials.”

The site selection comes at an auspicious time for the WSP, which announced Port Hilford as its pick of places for the unique and ambitious project almost exactly one year ago.

In its effort to build homes for whale and dolphins rescued from marine amusement parks, the U.S.-based animal welfare group – established in 2018 by some of the world’s leading animal welfare specialists (including Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of the late Jacques Cousteau) – had examined 100 potential sanctuary sites across North America. At the announcement, Vinick said, “Port Hilford stands out as the premier location for a whale sanctuary.”

Although the WSP still can’t guarantee specific boons for Port Hilford or the Eastern Shore, in general, it indicated at that time that economic benefits were likely. The organization said it would cover the estimated $20-million cost of the facility’s start-up and ongoing operating costs and that plans included a visitor centre, nature trail, viewing spots and educational programs about whales for schools and museums.

Said Vinick last week: “We really now have a definition of the sanctuary site that is far more specific than it was before. More importantly, by having that much land or coastal area included in the sanctuary site, we’ve got a really enriching area for the whales. We have the deepest water, at one point down to about 16 meters off Barachois Island, and we’ve got shallows as well. That’s a lot of variety in the substrate and the coastline, and that’s what you want for a whale sanctuary.”

In a related move, the WSP has also secured a location for a “welcome centre” in downtown Sherbrooke.

“We’re hoping to open it in April or by the first of May,” Vinick said.