Yakutat Natives see cruise ships as threat to seal pups

Posted: Thursday, April 27, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska Natives from the Yakutat area are calling for cruise ships to stay out of Disenchantment Bay during seal pupping season.

The bay, about halfway between Juneau and Cordova, is a playground for tourists and locals alike. It is also a nursery for harbor seals and a traditional hunting ground for Yakutat Natives.

Therein lies the conflict.

In about three weeks, cruise ships will begin making their way back into Disenchantment Bay. Their arrival will coincide with the start of seal pupping season. The ships will maneuver through ice floes, laden with newborn seal pups, to give thousands of tourists a close-up view of the animals and the Hubbard Glacier. The seals give birth on glacial ice that calves and floats in the nearby water.

The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, the Alaska Native Brotherhood and the Yakutat Native Marine Mammal Commission have passed resolutions opposing the ships' entry deep into the bay while the seals are pupping and rearing.

''We watch the cruise ships plow through the ice in the spring time from May 15 to June 15 when the seals are pupping. If you separate the pup from the mother, they die. We want to keep them (the ships) out of the ice during that period,'' said George Ramos, interim president of the marine mammal commission.

Federal biologists say the harbor seal population throughout Southeast is healthy and growing, but Yakutat hunters report seeing fewer of the animals in recent years.

The cruise industry only recently became aware of Yakutat's concerns over the seal issue and is looking into the matter, said John Hansen, president of the Northwest CruiseShip Association.

''We are doing some research into this issue and will be discussing the matter with the Yakutat residents,'' Hansen said.

Yakutat, a town of about 729 people, is predominately Tlingit. Seal hunting fulfills a major component of the tribe's cultural and dietary needs, residents say. According to a subsistence survey by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Yakutat consumes the most seal meat of any Southeast community. Residents typically harvest about 350 seals a year, Ramos said.

The National Marine Fisheries Services, which manages marine mammals, is working with the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission to come up with solutions to the Yakutat conflict, according to agency biologist Kaja Brix. Little is known about whether cruise ships are interfering with seal reproduction in Disenchantment Bay, she said.

There are no specific regulations on ship traffic through seal pupping areas. The only existing rule, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, simply prohibits the harassment of marine mammals, Brix said.

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