One of the premium sights of wildlife in Alaska waters is the humpback whale.
Any tourist who gets a view of one of these enormous marine mammals breaching near a charter boat is not likely to forget it, and such sightings have made whale watching an increasingly popular activity in recent years.
Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service have become concerned that the current boom in the whale-watching industry could be harmful to the whales, and they are now proposing regulations to establish a minimum approach distance for any boats intent on viewing them.
Under the proposed regulations, it would be unlawful to approach a humpback whale from less than 200 yards.
"Two hundred yards is a good distance for humpback whales," said Carol Tocco, of NMFS. "They feed continuously in the same areas and fast when they migrate south. If they don't feed here, they won't retain their health, so that's why it's important to make sure they're not disturbed."
In 1996, NMFS developed a set of voluntary guidelines for viewing marine mammals.
"The whale-watching industry has pretty much already followed the voluntary guidelines," said Tocco. "It's the occasional deliberate approach we're trying to eliminate."
While NMFS has not prosecuted any incidents of whale harassment, she said the new regulations will help prevent such occurrences.
"Right now we have to prove someone has actually harmed an animal," said Tocco. "There's no distance specified under the current guidelines. With a 200-yard limit, we would only have to prove they got too close."
The regulations will affect kayakers and sport-fishing boats as well as larger charter vessels.
"This will be a good thing," said whale biologist Olga Von Ziegesar, who has studied humpbacks in Prince William Sound for 20 years.
"In remote areas where people are watching whales, it's good to have regulations about how close to get to them. It will keep people honest."
It also may prevent accidents.
Von Ziegesar, who lives in Homer, pointed out an incident she said occurred several years ago near the Barren Islands, where a humpback whale lifted a boat out of the water by breaching underneath it.
"They were too close to the whale, and it may have got nervous and acted up," she said, adding there have been a few such incidents reported in Southeast Alaska, too.
Humpback whales migrate each year from Hawaii, where they breed, to feed on abundant small fish in northern waters. A 1999 survey done by NMFS estimates the population of humpbacks at 400 animals in Southeast, 200 in Prince William Sound, and 650 between Kodiak and Cook Inlet. The entire north Pacific population is about 8,000, according to Von Ziegesar.
"There are lots of capelin this year in Kachemak Bay, and that brings the whales in, because that's what they like to eat. Often it's the same animals that keep coming in here."
Whale watching is not as big an industry here as it is in Southeast, but fishing and sightseeing boats will stop to watch them if they're there, said Von Ziegesar. She also said Alaska's regulations are not as restrictive as in other areas.
"Whale watching regulations in Hawaii are very strict," she said. "You can't change speed or direction for a whale there, and you have to stay 300 yards away."
She said she thinks that distance may be too far.
"You can't grasp the immensity of these animals from that far away, and that's the whole point of whale watching."
Tocco does not foresee a lot of opposition to the proposed regulations.
"Most of the whale watchers understand that they need to keep the whales around, and keep people from disturbing them," she said. "You can still see them well enough from 200 yards."
A public comment period on the new regulations was opened June 26 and continues until Aug. 10. Comments may be sent to Mike Payne, Assistant Regional Administrator, at the National Marine Fisheries Service, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668. Comments also may be faxed to (907) 586-7012.
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