NOAA may propose cruise ship rules to protect harbor seals

AP Photo/Courtesy/National Park Service

JUNEAU — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration workshops in Juneau and Yakutat last month drew attention to the May 11 deadline for comments on whether it should propose new rules to protect harbor seals from impacts of cruise ship and other vessels in Alaskan glacial fjords.

The agency has no deadline for its decision on that question, but the sessions on April 22 and 23 were part of a response to a 10-year old request from the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe to address a decline in the Disenchantment Bay harbor seal population reported by its subsistence hunters.

Located at the top of Yakutat Bay, some 30 miles north of Yakutat and 220 northwest of Juneau, Disenchantment Bay is the isolated boundary between Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and the Tongass National Forest. Home of the famed “galloping” Hubbard Glacier, it is one of four fjords on regular cruise ship routes likely to be covered by any rule that is developed.

The others are College Fjord, in Prince William Sound to the west of Yakutat, and Tracy and Endicott Arms, both south of Juneau. Disenchantment Bay, home to a tenth of Alaska’s 150,000 harbor seal population according to NOAA’s best, six-year old estimate, is the only fjord where the question of impacts on the protected species is an issue. All four, though, are subject to changing levels of cruise ship and other vessel traffic and important to harbor seals as breeding, pupping and molting habitat.

Unlike strict National Park Service rules including seasonal and total closures, even to kayaks, of similar areas of Glacier Bay, vessels in the other fjord are subject only to the general 100-yard no-go zone covering all species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The tribe first put its request to NMFS in 2002, but isn’t critical of the slow response or ready to blame cruise ships for the perceived population change. Current events are partly the result of NOAA’s review of it own mostly inconclusive 2006 study “Disturbance of Harbor Seals by Cruise Ships in Disenchantment Bay.”

Based on May to August 2002 research including “unprecedented” assistance from cruise line operators, the study confirmed that seals and nursing pups are more likely to “flush” from ice floes as ships get closer but found no indication that the interactions were responsible for a population decline, according to lead author John Jansen, a National Marine Fisheries Service biologist based in Seattle.

Seal “abundance rebounded to peak levels in late June, as cruise ship traffic reached maximum levels ... Seal abundance then steadily increased in concert with increasing ship traffic suggesting that changes in overall abundance were influenced by factors other than ship presence,” the report states.

Unrelated and limited research indicates that pups spend about half their time in the water. Modeling conducted subsequent to the 2002 study projected that being forced to spend “just a couple hours more” per day in Disenchantment Bay’s particularly cold waters due to cruise ship induced flushing “could mean your survival is a little bit behind average,” Jansen said.

Alaska’s coastal waters average 12 degrees Celsius, or 53 degrees Fahrenheit, but those at the face of the ice river are as low as 3 degrees Celsius, or 37 degrees Fahrenheit, he noted.

“The studies are showing there’s a possibility that they are having an effect but how much of an effect, and how, needs to be further studied,” said Victoria Demmert, tribal president, April 24.

The tribe will finalize its formal comments to NOAA at a May 8 council meeting, but currently stands by its 1999 resolution asking that ships remain outside the “Demarcation Line” it then designated. Running from Bancas Point to the mouth of Calahonda Creek, the Demarcation Line would keep ships five miles from the Hubbard Glacier face.

Heavy ice conditions sometime enforce the Demarcation Line and some vessels respect it when they have the choice, according to Demmert, but she declined to identify any in favor of continued cordial communications with the fleet.

The 2002 study included aerial photo-flights followed by observations of seal/vessel interactions by NMFS researchers who hitched rides daily on cruise ships entering the bay allowing precise measurement of their distance from seals when they were flushed.

The Northwest Cruiseship Association didn’t like the Demarcation Line when it was created. Its successor, the Alaska Cruise Association, hasn’t changed that stance, but continues to abide by a long-standing agreement with the tribe to stay at least 500 yards from any seals during pupping and 100 yards at all other times, according to ACA President John Binkley.

“In over 10 years since seal populations near Yakutat were studied, there has been no scientific evidence showing that boats with Alaska visitors on them have caused a decline in seal populations or that there is any problem with overall seal populations in Alaska,” Binkley wrote in an April 26 email interview.

“We fully support discussing with NMFS or the Yakutat Tribe ways to reduce ship disturbances; but without any scientific basis, we will remain concerned over any effort to diminish glacier viewing opportunities which is a critical component of the uniqueness which draws visitors to Alaska,” Binkley added.

Bertram Adams Jr., tribe general manager, said he and Binkley have discussed the issue three or four times in the past 18 months without change.

“There have been small discussions on options as they go through this regulatory process,” Adams said April 26.

Despite its glacial speed, federal law may also be working favor of the tribe. Alicia Bishop, from NMFS’ Protected Resources office in Juneau, noted at the hearing there that federal law defines “taking” not only as active hunting but “any activity that has the potential to disrupt or cause disruption” of protected species.

Bishop noted that protective distance regulations vary with the species being protected, locations and activities, but many from Hawaii to New England are tougher than those in Alaska’s fjords.

Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected].

05/02/2013 - 8:49am