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Troubling trend of drones buzzing B.C. marine mammals leads to DFO warning

Disturbing whales, sea lions and other marine mammals prohibited under federal regulations
Marine mammal regulations prohibit drones being flown near marine mammals. Black Press file photo.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada is reminding B.C. residents to avoid flying drones near marine mammals, a potentially harmful activity being seen more frequently.

Under the federal Marine Mammal Regulations, it is illegal to approach marine mammals with an aerial drone at an altitude below 1,000 feet (about 304 metres) within a half nautical mile (about 926 metres). Flight maneuvers, including taking off, landing or altering course or altitude, are also not allowed near them.

Despite these prohibitions, the department is receiving increasing reports of drones approaching marine mammals, said Dustin De Gagne, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Fishery Officer, with the Whale Protection Unit, in a phone interview.

“Especially during COVID, we’ve seen an increase in the amount of (Vancouver) Island residents using drones, and it’s becoming one of our most common violations that we’re seeing here in the south coast,” said De Gagne.

The department has received 20 occurrences of marine mammal harassment and disturbance involving drones since 2020, of which about half happened this year.

This trend coincides with drones becoming more popular as their cost declines and technology improves. But it also is representative of the public being more aware of the restrictions, he added.

Drones have the potential to cause acoustic or physical disturbance to not only whales, but other marine mammals, such as sea lions and seals.

“The science is indicating that with the use of drones — depending on the distance, type, and other variables at play — there is a high likelihood of disturbance or harassment to marine mammals,” he said. “This is just one more variable that could adversely affect them.”

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Disturbance results in an energetic cost to an animal, which could impact their survival. For sea lions and other pinnipeds at a haul out, stampeding and trampling may also result if they become startled by a drone.

Two instances of illegal drone flights have also hindered efforts by the departments to help entangled humpback whales.

“In one case a DFO surveillance aircraft was attempting to photograph a whale entanglement for on-the-water responders when they had to cut short their efforts after encountering an illegal drone in their airspace, and recently an illegal recreational drone interfered with a DFO authorized drone engaged in taking conducting an aerial assessment of another entangled whale,” said De Gagne, in a follow-up email. “So, not only does illegal drone activity have the potential to result in disturbance to marine mammals, but they may also interfere with coordinated departmental rescue efforts to save entangled whales.”

The Whale Protection Unit has several open investigations into drone activity around marine mammals, he said.

A charge under the Marine Mammals Regulation results in a mandatory court appearance. Upon conviction, there is a potential for a fine up to $100,000, an amount increasing on subsequent offences. Disturbing a marine mammal, depending on the species, could also result in charges under the Species at Risk Act.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada recommends anyone seeing a drone approach a marine mammal to ‘observe, record and report.’ Incidents may be reported to the marine mammal incident hotline at 1-800-465-4336 or

Permits and authorizations may be attained to use drones to film marine mammals. However, these are reserved for efforts — typically by organizations rather than individuals — beneficial to marine mammal populations, namely research or education, as determined by the DFO’s marine mammal coordinator.

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