Fisheries service hears pros and cons on proposed whale regulation

Posted: Wednesday, October 18, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- Keeping boats 200 yards away from humpback whales in Alaska would harm tour companies, some boat owners told the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Other boat operators and conservation groups, however, told the fisheries service that the proposed federal rule, as well as other requirements being considered, would keep the whales from being harassed or struck.

The statements were included in comments solicited by the fisheries service on its proposed regulation intended to protect the endangered whales, which feed with their calves in Alaska in the summer, from being chased off their feeding grounds. The comment period closed Sunday.

The Whale Center of New England, a research and education organization in Gloucester, Mass., opposed the 200-yard limit, saying it wasn't based on science.

The center's director and chief scientist, Mason Weinrich, said if whales react to anything, they react to sound, not the nearness of vessels. He called the proposed rule an easily enforceable but ultimately meaningless regulation.

Heather Peterson, a graduate student at Duke University's environmental school, told the fisheries service it was common to see up to 13 boats watching a single humpback over 90-minute sampling periods near Juneau this summer.

Federal law prohibits harassing or harming endangered species and marine mammals in general, but the law is hard to prosecute, officials have said. Voluntary guidelines for watching marine mammals also aren't always followed. Those guidelines ask mariners to stay 100 yards away and watch the animals for no more than 30 minutes.

The 200-yard limit wouldn't please tour passengers, who already complain about the 100-yard distance, Rob Allen, president of Allen Marine Tours, told the fisheries service.

The company served more than 100,000 passengers in Juneau, Sitka and Seward last summer.

''If we are forced to view whales from a minimum 200-yard distance, even the more understanding of our customers will be significantly disappointed and it will result in serious damage to our business,'' Allen told the Juneau Empire.

Allen asked the fisheries service to turn the current guidelines into formal rules and enforce them, along with a requirement that boats slow down near whales to avoid collisions.

Even commenters who supported the 200-yard limit, such as the Marine Mammal Commission and the Center for Marine Conservation, often asked for additional protection such as vessel speed limits.

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