JUNEAU (AP) -- No one would be able to approach within 200 yards of a humpback whale in Alaska under a proposed federal rule published Monday in the Federal Register.
The proposal follows explosive growth in whale-watching and charter-fishing businesses in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska.
The rule would replace voluntary guidelines, which recommend staying at least 100 yards from marine mammals and watching them for no more than a half-hour.
The proposal is intended to give mariners a clear rule to follow when they come across the endangered whales, which feed in waters off Alaska from spring to fall, fisheries service officials said.
It's the only time all year the whales feed, so it's important not to disrupt them or the schooling fish they prey upon, said National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement agent Ron Antaya.
''If they don't get all the chow they need in Alaska, they may not make it back next year,'' he told the Juneau Empire.
Some commercial fishermen actively fishing would be exempt from the rule, Antaya said.
Larry Dupler of Orca Enterprises, who operates a whale-watching boat in Juneau, said the proposed rule would not hurt the visitor industry. Many tour boats already watch whales from a few hundred yards away, he said.
Dupler said he's seen humpbacks leave areas in reaction to boats.
''If we keep crowding these guys, there's a good chance they may move away from us here,'' he said.
The fisheries service considered other restrictions, such as speed limits or limits on whale-watching time, but rejected them as unenforceable.
Regulators said current guidelines are not enforceable.
''We couldn't do anything about people not adhering to guidelines,'' said Kaja Brix, a fisheries service wildlife biologist in Juneau.
The proposed rule would prohibit anyone from approaching within 200 yards of a humpback whale in Alaska, including placing a boat in the path of a whale so that it surfaces.
The rule does not require vessels to leave if a whale surfaces nearby or approaches a boat. Antaya said quickly moving away may be more disruptive than staying quietly.
Antaya said public comment on the proposed rule will be taken through Aug. 10. A decision on a final rule will follow review of public comments, Antaya said.
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