Tour operators in a struggling northern Manitoba town say that new rules meant to keep whales safe could end up killing their businesses.

New federal regulations were announced in June that require people and vessels – even kayaks – to keep their distance from whales, porpoises and dolphins.

The rules vary based on location, with a 100-metre buffer required in Hudson Bay and 50 metres of distance required in the Seal River and Churchill Estuary.

Those who don’t comply can be fined up to $500,000 under the Fisheries Act, which whale tour guides in Churchill, Man., say could sink them financially.

Tourism is one of the few bright spots in the town, which is dealing with high food prices and economic decline after its only overland link to the rest of the country, a railroad, was shut down in 2017 due to flooding.

The nationwide rules were put into place after high-profile incidents of whales killed by ships in the St. Lawrence Estuary in southern Quebec. But northern Manitobans say there is no threat to the Hudson Bay population of belugas, which are estimated to number between 55,000 to 60,000.

Marine biologist Kristin Westdal, who studies Arctic whales for the conservation non-profit Oceans North, said the Arctic beluga population is thriving.

She added that she knows of no conclusive evidence that the tours are harming the whales, and said that targeting whale watchers “doesn’t make any sense.”

Wally Daudrich from the Beluga Whale Tour Operator Association says it’s not even possible to avoid coming in close contact with marine mammals.

“As soon as we take our boats out onto the water we are literally flogged by whales,” he said.

Daudrich said tour operators have written to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans asking for an exemption to the rules but haven’t received any response.

Adam Burns from Fisheries and Oceans Canada says the department plans to enforce the new rules.

“We’ve established these distances based on the best available science,” he said.

With a report from CTV Winnipeg’s Beth Macdonnell