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Unleashed dog attack highlights need for enforcement of leash rules on region's beaches

Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary covers 30 kilometres of coastline from 10 Mile Point to Macaulay Point and up the Gorge Waterway to Portage Inlet.

A fatal dog attack on Willows Beach last week highlights a need for more clarity and enforcement of on-leash rules on the region’s beaches, says the chair of a group dedicated to protecting bird life along the coast.

An Oak Bay couple’s 10-year-old chihuahua mix was put down after an attack by an off-leash dog on Willows Beach. The dog responsible for the attack was euthanized shortly after.

Jacques Sirois, chair of the Friends of Victoria Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary, said dog walkers appear to be unclear on the requirement to keep their dogs on leash in areas within the sanctuary, which covers 30 kilometres of coastline from 10 Mile Point to Macaulay Point and up the Gorge Waterway to Portage Inlet.

Established in 1923 to control the hunting of birds, the sanctuary is an important ­roosting and overwintering site for many migratory bird species.

Federal regulations prohibit dogs and cats from running “at large” below the high-tide line in the sanctuary to protect the birds. That means dogs must be leashed at all times below the high-tide line from Portage Inlet to Cadboro Bay, and no swimming is allowed for dogs in the sanctuary, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada, which enforces the regulations. Penalties for those violating the rules start at $400 and can rise to $1,600 for repeat offenders.

Knowledge of the regulations appears to vary depending on location, with the majority of dog walkers at Cadboro Bay and Gonzales Beach now aware, Justin Ziola, a wildlife enforcement officer for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said in a statement.

Still, federal wildlife enforcement officers have witnessed dog walkers allowing their pets to harass migratory birds, sometimes throwing sticks and balls into a group of birds within the sanctuary, causing the birds to take flight as the dog runs into the group, Ziola said.

Part of the issue is a mix of federal signs and municipal signs that may confuse dog walkers, particularly when municipal signs indicate seasonal restrictions when dogs aren’t allowed on beaches at all, Sirois said.

He’d like to see consistent signs reflecting all federal and municipal rules together to make it easier for people to understand.

A lack of enforcement is also an issue, Sirois said. Federal officials don’t have the resources to regularly monitor beaches and enforce the rules, and they need help from municipalities within the sanctuary, he said.

He believes more enforcement is needed on beaches below Dallas Road, around Clover Point, Gonzales Beach and Willows Beach.

Animal bylaws in Victoria and Oak Bay are enforced by Victoria Animal Control Services, while Saanich contracts out animal enforcement to Capital Regional Distict animal care services.

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch said animal control officers monitor parks in the district and respond to complaints. The district went through a review with Environment and Climate Change Canada a few years ago to ensure all its regulations and signs are compliant with federal regulations, he said.

“I just always want to remind the dog owners out there that they are responsible for their dogs and the freedoms that dogs have is dependent upon the goodwill of the community that they’re in,” he said.

Saanich is emphasizing compliance with rules through education as residents adapt to its new animals bylaw. Enforcement will increase when updated signs and new fencing is installed, the district said.

In 2022, a CRD officer issued a $100 ticket to a woman whose dog was not leashed within the sanctuary and forwarded the incident on to federal wildlife enforcement officials, who issued an additional $400 ticket.

The presence of dogs has become more of an issue in recent years as pet ownership has grown, Sirois said. Birds that were once seen in the thousands, like the American wigeon, are now gone from Greater Victoria shores, he said.

“Most people don’t understand how different the beach is today compared to 50 years ago. There’s very, very few birds left today,” Sirois said.

For rules on specific beaches, visit the relevant municipality’s website: Victoria, Saanich and Oak Bay.

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