International laws regarding whale protection include the International Whaling Convention of 1946, which implemented a ban on commercial whaling (albeit with a few exceptions); the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which protects all great whales from commercial trade; and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an agreement that levies a duty on nations to conserve marine mammals and follow the guidelines of the International Whaling Commission.
In the United States, whales are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Such legislation is important for Canadian whales that also reside in US waters, such as the North Atlantic right whale and the blue whale. In Canada specifically, there are a number of regulations that enforce whale protection and management.
The Fisheries Act specifically holds protections for whales in the form of the Marine Mammal Regulations, a set of rules that dictate the fishing, hunting, and treatment of marine mammals in Canadian waters. To prevent disturbances and ship strikes, for example, the regulations dictate that boats—including whale watching vessels—must stay at least 100 metres from cetaceans (whales, porpoises, and dolphins). These regulations also protect walruses and seals and contain specific protection measures for St. Lawrence Estuary beluga whales, bowhead whales, and narwhals.
Determining the conservation status of whales is important for implementing policies to protect them. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) assesses the risk of extinction to wildlife species, including whales, while the Species at Risk Act (SARA) gives legal protection and manages special status species to ensure their recovery. Species that are officially recognized as endangered, threatened, or of special concern are placed on SARA’s Schedule 1, after which scientists and policymakers can develop protection and recovery measures. Several whale species, including the North Atlantic right whale, blue whale, beluga whale, bowhead whale, and fin whale, are listed under Schedule 1. Species are also often protected under provincial special status lists.
Whales do not have to be endangered to be protected, however. In 2019, the Canadian Parliament passed Bill S-203, banning the breeding or captivity of all whales, dolphins, and porpoises. While the bill was lauded by animal activists, it does not affect the 57 cetaceans already in captivity at Marineland and the lone beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium.
Aside from regulations and laws specific to whale protection and species recovery, Canada has various regulations and initiatives protecting whale habitat. For example, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act aims to prevent pollution, while the Oceans Act has created programs on integrated ocean management, marine protected areas (MPAs), and marine environmental quality. Meanwhile, initiatives at both the federal and provincial levels often revolve around education and citizen empowerment to protect marine environments from threats like pollution, climate change, and biodiversity loss.