ANCHORAGE (AP) -- People will have to stay at least 100 yards away from humpback whales under a federal rule designed to keep the animals from being harassed but close enough for good whale-watching, officials said Wednesday.
The new regulation goes into effect July 2. Fines attached to the regulation have not yet been worked out.
The National Marine Fisheries Service had proposed a 200-yard limit but decided on 100 yards after receiving comment from 42 individuals and groups, mostly environmentalists and charter boat operators.
''We worked closely with the public and the whale watching industry to balance protection of the whales with public demand for enjoyable whale watching opportunities,'' said Jim Balsiger, Alaska regional administrator for NOAA fisheries.
Carol Tocco, NMFS spokeswoman, said the rule is consistent with voluntary guidelines already in place concerning the viewing of all marine mammals. Fishing vessels that have deployed their gear and are actively fishing are exempt from the rule.
The regulation was prompted largely by the growth of whale-watching charters in the waters of Southeast and the Kenai Peninsula where humpbacks like to feed.
The rule also is consistent with protections in place in Hawaii, where the whales migrate each year.
Tocco said there are about 6,000 humpback whales in the North Pacific, with two-thirds of them in the Central North Pacific region. Of those, about 400 are in Southeast Alaska, according to a 1999 sampling.
While the 100-yard rule works in many areas of Alaska because the whales are scattered, 200 yards would have been better in places where there are a lot of whales and heavy whale-watching traffic, said Jan Straley, a whale researcher at the University of Alaska Southeast.
In addition to a distance limit, people need to be educated about whales, she said. They need to know going full-throttle to see a 40-ton whale is not a good idea. Where there is one whale, there are usually others that can surface at any time, she said.
The rule will not affect Adventures Afloat of Juneau because captains of the 106-foot charter boat already stay a safe distance from the whales, said Linda Kadrlik, who owns the business with her husband Francis.
''They're big. You don't want to mess with them,'' she said. ''Sometimes they will come right in front of you and there's nothing you can do.''
Melody Shell, a kayak guide for Baidarka Boats of Sitka, said the 100-yard rule is just common sense.
''Anything closer to me seems like you are endangering yourself,'' she said.
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