Laws and Regulations

Canadian and Quebec legislation ensures the protection and conservation of marine mammals.

In June 2002, Canada adopted the Species at Risk Act (SARA). This law has been in effect since June 2003. It aims to:

  • Prevent the extinction of wild species in Canada;
  • Allow for the recovery of species extirpated from the country, endangered or threatened due to human activities;
  • Prevent special concern species from becoming further endangered.

Under the SARA it is prohibited to hunt, capture, harass or harm any extirpated, endangered or threatened species registered on the List of Wildlife Species at Risk (Schedule 1 of the SARA). It is also illegal to possess, collect, purchase, sell or trade individuals, parts of individuals or products derived from these species. SARA also prohibits damaging or destroying the residence or any essential element of their habitat.

The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), an independent advisory body composed of experts, determines the situation of species and attributes them a status. Following COSEWIC’s assessment, the government decides whether or not to register the species on the List of Wildlife Species at Risk while taking into account the economic and social repercussions for Canadian citizens. If the species is added, it is protected under SARA. Recovery programs for extirpated, endangered and threatened species and management plans for species of special concern must be developed.

Five species of St. Lawrence whales are currently protected by SARA: the North Atlantic right whale, the blue whale, and the Scotian Shelf population of the northern bottlenose whale, as well as the St. Lawrence Estuary beluga population ((all three Endangered)) and the fin whale (Special Concern).

Understanding SARA


Quebec act respecting threatened or vulnerable species

To protect biodiversity in Quebec, a law similar to the Canadian Species at Risk Act (SARA) exists. This law was adopted in 1989. It is called the Act Respecting Threatened or Vulnerable Species. More specifically, the objectives of this law are:

  • To prevent the extinction or extirpation of species living in Quebec;
  • To avoid a reduction in numbers of wildlife or plant species designated “Threatened” or “Vulnerable”;
  • To ensure the conservation of habitats of species designated “Threatened” or “Vulnerable”;
  • To re-establish populations and habitats of species designated “Threatened” or “Vulnerable”;
  • To prevent any species from becoming “Threatened” or “Vulnerable”.

Under this law, the government establishes a list of species likely to be designated “Threatened” or “Vulnerable”, which are the species whose situations are of special concern. In 2019, this list contained 115 species, including four species of St. Lawrence cetaceans: North Atlantic right whale, blue whale, fin whale and harbour porpoise.

Liste des espèces désignées comme menacées ou vulnérables au Québec (in French only).


Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations

In order to protect marine mammals from disturbance caused by human activities, the Government of Canada has established minimum distances for observing and approaching marine mammals throughout its territory. The information presented here is provided for indicative purposes; the wording of the Marine Mammal Regulations prevails.

Canada’sMarine Mammal Regulations, which were most recently amended in 2018, state that it is prohibited to approach within 100 metres of a whale, dolphin or porpoisein Canadian waters (save for some exceptions). This distance doubles (to 200 metres) if the animal is at rest or in the company of a calf.

Established using scientific data, the regulations vary depending on the circumstances:

400 metres –for threatened or endangered whales, dolphins and porpoises (as per the Species at Risk Act) in the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay River

400 metres – for killer whales in critical habitat of the southern resident killer whale (between June 1 and October 31). Otherwise, a minimum approach distance of 200 metres applies to all killer whale populations off the British Columbia coast and in the Pacific Ocean.

200 metres –for whales, dolphins and porpoises present in certain parts of the St. Lawrence Estuary (between L’Isle-aux-Grues and Baie-Comeau on the Estuary’s north shore and Baie-des-Sables on the south shore)

50 metres –in parts of the Churchill River to allow for safe navigation

Other distances apply in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park; they are presented in this section.

The information presented herein is provided for indicative purposes; the wording of the Regulations prevails.

Approach distance for seals

Under Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations, it is recommended not to approach within 100 metres of seal haulouts. When passing by such a haulout, stay calm and exercise caution, especially during the breeding and pupping season, which usually runs from May to September.

Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations

The Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park has its own regulations, namely the Marine Activities in the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations. These regulations are complementary to Canada’s Marine Mammal Regulations.

Throughout the Marine Park, it is prohibited to approach within 200 metres of a cetacean. For belugas and blue whales, this distance increases to 400 metres.

Under the Species at Risk Act, the regulatory distance is 400 metres for threatened and endangered species, namely blue whales and the St. Lawrence beluga population.

Within the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park, a boat shall not operate at speeds exceeding 25 knots (46.3 km/h). In a marine mammal observation zone, the maximum permissible speed decreases to 10 knots (18.5 km/h).In order to minimize disturbance, if a watercraft finds itself in proximity to a cetacean, it is forbidden to travel at speeds higher than those required to manoeuvre the vessel, or to repeatedly stop or start the vessel or make repeated changes of direction.

Within the Marine Park, it is prohibited to use a personal watercraft, hovercraft or to practice towed water sports using a motorized boat.

Specific clauses for whale watching

During trips out to sea, captains holding a Class 1 licence issued by the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park may approach to within 100 metres of a cetacean. If the animal is at rest or with a calf, the minimum distance increases to 200 metres.

In order to limit stress levels on whales, boat operators shall not enter a marine mammal observation zone anytime more than nine boats are already within the said zone. Likewise, operators shall not approach within 200 metres of a whale if more than four boats are already within 400 metres.

Marine Park regulations stipulate that​​ a boat shall not remain more than one hour or operate for more than one hour in the observation zone of another vessel or in an observation area.

Note that captains are required to maintain a distance of at least 400 metres from an endangered or threatened species such as the St. Lawrence beluga.


It is forbidden for any pilot to fly an aircraft (plane, helicopter, drone, etc.) over the Marine Park within 609.6 metres (2,000 feet) of the water surface in order to reduce noise pollution, which can hamper communication between whales and influence their behaviour. Additionally, aircraft shall not take off or land within Marine Park territory unless they have a special activity permit.

The information presented herein is provided for indicative purposes; the wording of the Regulations prevails.

Protection of geographic locations

We sometimes forget that, although vast, the ocean is also fragile. And its sheer size both in area and in depth can give the impression that it is impossible to protect… but the marine environment and its biodiversity can be preserved!

Marine protected areas

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) defines a marine protected area as “a clearly defined geographical [portion of coastal or oceanic marine waters], recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”

The objectives of a marine protected area are therefore to preserve species and their genetic variability as well as to safeguard natural processes and ecosystems.

Any activity carried out within a protected area must not alter its essential biological character. In the event of a conflict of interest, it is the conservation of nature that shall be given precedence. The territory of a marine protected area is therefore protected against commercial fisheries, offshore drilling, shipping traffic and motorized recreational activities.

Protecting 10% by 2020

Canada borders three oceans: the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Arctic. In fact, Canada boasts 243,000 km of coastline, more than any country in the world.

The marine environment is both fragile and vulnerable. To protect it, the Government of Canada and the Government of Quebec are committed to protecting 10% of their marine and coastal areas by 2020. This international commitment is part of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, including Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

In 2020, at the 15thmeeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) to the Convention on Biological Diversity of the United Nations, in Beijing, China, an assessment of the progress made toward current goals and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be carried out.

As of the summer of 2019, Quebec was still a long way from reaching its objective of increasing the portion of marine protected areas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its Estuary to 10% by 2020. Its network of marine protected areas covers just 1,957 km2, or 1.3% of the marine environment.

At the federal level, the Government of Canada announced that, as of August 1, 2019, it had reached and even exceeded its marine conservation objective of protecting 10% of marine and coastal areas. In Canada, the protected marine environment covers 793,906 km2, or 13.81% of the country’s marine and coastal areas. The network consists of 14 marine protected areas, 3 national marine conservation areas, 1 national marine wildlife reserve and 59 marine refuges.

However, Émilien Pelletier, environmental chemist at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, expressed reservations about this otherwise encouraging assessment(report in French): “Marine refuges are not marine protected areas as defined by the IUCN. The regulations enacted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada for marine refuges relate only to commercial and recreational fisheries for those species mentioned.” Indeed, other than commercial fishing, Canadian marine refuges do not restrict anthropogenic activities that could threaten the ecosystem such as seismic exploration, underwater mining and fisheries for unlisted species.

Marine refuges span an area of over 200,000 km2. If one removes them from the calculation of Canada’s marine protected areas, the portion of protected waters decreases to 10.31%.

Les aires marines protégées et les projets en cours au Québec

Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park

In 1998, after nearly 10 years of consultations, the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park was legally created. It was the first park in Quebec to offer protection exclusively to a marine environment. It was also the first park to be jointly managed by Parks Canada and the SÉPAQ (Société des établissement de plein air du Québec).

Notably, the drivers for the establishment of a park at this location were the desire to protect critical beluga habitat, as well as the exceptional geographic and oceanographic conditions of the mouth of the Saguenay. The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park covers a representative portion of the St. Lawrence Estuary and the Saguenay Fjord. It measures 1245 km.2.

One of the important issues of this park is the management of whale-watching activities. Since 2002, a regulation governs such activities within the boundaries of the park. The Marine Activities in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park Regulations was amend in January 2017 to increase the protection of marine mammals. You can find more details here.

To learn more, visit the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park website.


Formalized in March 2019, Banc-des-Américains is the first joint project covered by the Canada-Quebec Collaborative Agreement for the establishment of a network of marine protected areas in Quebec(in French). The collaboration of the two levels of government confers a dual status to Banc-des-Américains: that of an aquatic reserve according to Quebec law and that of a marine protected area under Canada’s Oceans Act.

Across an area spanning 1,000 km2, it is now prohibited to carry out any activity that disturbs, damages, destroys or removes from the marine protected area any living marine organism or any part of its habitat, or which is likely to do so. In other words, no petroleum exploration is permitted and measures are being taken to protect the ecosystem from overfishing.

As of the summer of 2019, the Banc-des-Américains management plan is being developed.

Magdalen Islands

A marine protected area in the Magdalen Islands is currently under consideration. In June 2019, Quebec and Ottawa announced that a feasibility study would be carried out over the next few years to define the advantages and disadvantages of a marine protected area surrounding the archipelago. If the marine protected area were to be established, it would be the largest of its kind in Canada with an area of ​​17,000 km2, or 14 times the size of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.

A pre-feasibility study for the proposed Magdalen Islands marine protected area (in French) was carried out between 2012 and 2014 by Parks Canada and the Quebec Department of the Environment and the Fight against Climate Change. The findings of the study reveal that the creation of a marine protected area is potentially feasible.

St. Lawrence Estuary

Designating a marine protected area is not as simple as outlining its boundaries on a map. Sites that harbour ecologically sensitive habitat or species requiring enhanced protection are first designated as an area of interest before a marine protected area project can get underway.

The St. Lawrence Estuary Area of Interest (AOI) spans 6,000 km2 and encompasses the beluga’s summer range. It is adjacent and complementary to the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.

This area of interest also coincides with the portion of the St. Lawrence where anthropogenic pressure on the ecosystem is greatest. Establishing a marine protected area in this region would provide protection to marine mammals and their habitat against disturbance of the marine environment, chemical exposure, risk of ship strikes, noise, etc.


The best way to protect whales is to prevent the threats they face. But such prevention often requires compromise: modifying fishing practices, getting people to rethink their consumer habits, changing the way we observe wildlife. Coexistence of humans and marine mammals can be improved through awareness. “People protect what they love,” affirmed seabed explorer Jacques Cousteau. Years later, this still holds true: the more we know about marine ecosystems, the more we get involved in protecting and preserving the marine environment.

Both in Quebec and around the world, numerous organizations work to raise public awareness. Here are a few initiatives aimed at protecting the whales of the St. Lawrence.

Whale Portraits

Keep your eyes peeled when visiting the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park! Whale Portraitscan be spotted just about everywhere, from the deck of the Baie-Sainte-Catherine – Tadoussac ferry to cruise ships.

Each week during the summer season, the Whale Portraits newsletter features an individual recently observed in the waters of the Marine Park as well as write-ups on whale watching, research and conservation. This continuing education tool is handed out to captains and naturalists. You can also view the portraits of whales observed in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park on Whales Online.

To read the archives: only)

Écho des Baleines

Intended for boaters and kayakers who frequent the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park area, Écho des Baleines(newsletter in French only) aims to instill in them a passion for marine mammals, namely whales and seals. Prepared by GREMM’s editorial team, the newsletter includes up-to-date knowledge on marine mammals as well as tools for adopting responsible behaviour when observing these animals. It is on display in marinas, kayak rental centres and boat launches in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park and surrounding areas.

Simply subscribe to receive Écho des Baleines twice monthly during the summer season. It’s free! You will receive the newsletter by email. 


Navigating Whale Habitat: Free Online Training Course for Recreational Boaters and Kayakers

Entitled “Navigating Whale Habitat”, the online training helps participants brush up on their knowledge of whales and the regulations that have been put in place to protect them. It is also suitable for different types of watercraft, including kayaks, sailboats and motorboats. The course takes 30 to 45 minutes to complete and is available for your mobile phone or your computer. Ready to improve your knowledge of whales and how to best operate your watercraft in their habitat ? Visit! A token certificate is issued once the training has been successfully completed.

“Show you care, keep your distance” campaign

 A joint campaign between Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Parks Canada, the Marine Mammal Observation Network and the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, “Show you care, keep your distance” aims to inform boaters of the regulations pertaining to St. Lawrence belugas and good practices to adopt when navigating in their habitat. The campaign includes a presence at boat shows, visits to boaters on the water and in marinas, videos and flyers.

Consultation and coordination

Marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary share their home with recreational boaters, cruise operators, freighters and numerous other watercraft. To maximize the value of whale conservation initiatives, all parties must find common ground. This is achieved through consultation groups in which stakeholders come together to reflect, identify solutions and make decisions related to the environmental, social and economic challenges encountered in the Estuary.

Echo-Whale Alliance

The Eco-Whale Alliance was created in 2011 to encourage environmentally responsible whale-watching in the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park. The objective is to continually improve offshore whale-watching practices so that they represent a model of sustainability. The Alliance comprises the GREMM, whale-watching companies as well as Parks Canada and the SÉPAQ, co-managers of the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.

The objectives of the the Eco-Whale Alliance are:

  • The objectives of the the Eco-Whale Alliance are:
  • To limit the impacts of offshore whale-watching activities;
  • To ensure resource monitoring and the effectiveness of management measures;
  • To adopt environmentally, socially and economically responsible practices;
  • To work in a spirit of cooperation by bringing together stakeholders from the tourism, research and conservation sectors.

In 2011, the Alliance released the Guide for Eco-Responsible Practices for Captains/Naturalists. This is a tool developed for captains to promote the adoption of exemplary behaviour on the water. The guide also includes a chart that describes the eco-responsible duties of captains in 10 points. The Guide is complementary to applicable laws and regulations.

The Alliance also created the Eco-Whale Fund for whale research and education in the Marine Park. This support fund aims to maintain long-term efforts and encourage new projects.

Green Marine

Green Marine is an environmental certification program for the North American marine industry.

It is a voluntary, transparent and inclusive initiative that addresses key environmental issues through its 12 performance indicators. Participants are shipowners, ports, terminals, Seaway corporations and shipyards.

To receive their certification, participants must benchmark their annual environmental performance through the program’s self-evaluation guides, have their results verified by an accredited external verifier and agree to publication of their individual results.

G2T3M - Working Group on Marine Traffic and Protection of Marine Mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

G2T3M – Working Group on Marine Traffic and Protection of Marine Mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Since 2011, the Working Group on Marine Traffic and Protection of Marine Mammals in the Gulf of St. Lawrence (G2T3M) has been developing concrete solutions to reduce shipping traffic-related risks for marine mammals in the St. Lawrence Estuary without jeopardizing the activities of the Merchant Marine or compromising safety. Thanks to the work of G2T3M, voluntary measures to reduce speed and avoid certain areas with high whale densities have been implemented in the St. Lawrence Estuary. Monitoring of the application of these voluntary measures shows a reduction in shipping-related noise.

Co-chaired by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Parks Canada, G2T3M is composed of representatives from the following organizations: St. Lawrence Shipoperators, Green Marine, Corporation des pilotes du Bas-Saint-Laurent, Shipping Federation of Canada, Canadian Coast Guard, Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, Marine Mammal Observation Network, St. Lawrence Economic Development Council, Transports Canada, University of British Columbia and Université du Québec en Outaouais.