New rules may separate ships, Alaska seals

By Dan Joling

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Jan. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

In this 2010 photo provided by the National park Service, a group of harbor seals are seen on icebergs near the Hubbard Glacier in Alaska. Federal scientists are recommending rules that could restrict cruise ship visits to Alaska's Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat. The report concludes cruise ships may threaten harbor seals, a marine mammal important to Native Alaskan subsistence hunters.

National Park Service, Associated Press

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Federal scientists are recommending rules that could restrict cruise ship visits to Alaska's Hubbard Glacier, the longest tidewater glacier in North America, because of the threat they pose to harbor seals, a marine mammal important to Native Alaskan subsistence hunters in nearby Yakutat.

Scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say cruise ships making their way through Disenchantment Bay on their way to the glacier flush seals from ice floes into chilly sea water during critical pupping and molting periods.

Pups must bulk up on mother's milk during four to six weeks of nursing to have a better chance of surviving their first winter, said wildlife biologist John Jansen, lead researcher for the study. It suggests measures as severe as a blanket exclusion of cruise ships during pupping and molting, covering May through August, a big chunk of the cruise ship season.

NOAA Fisheries rules makers said they "hope to move forward in the near future" on the recommendations, said Aleria Jensen, a marine mammal specialist in the protected resources division. "This is a high priority issue for us."

Cruise ships and other elements of large-scale tourism went from a trickle to a boom in Alaska over the last three decades as tourists lined up to see the state's wonders from the warmth of a train car, a bus or a floating four-star hotel.

Alaska has become a major cruise destination, with 8 percent of the world capacity, the third highest share, according to the study, behind the Caribbean's 36 percent and the Mediterranean's 16 percent.

Southeast Alaska offers whales, fjords, mountain peaks and America's largest national forest. The breathtaking Hubbard Glacier stretches 76 miles to Mount Logan in Canada's Yukon Territory. At water's edge, Hubbard Glacier is six miles wide and more than 300 feet high. Visitors near the face can watch chunks of ice break off, cracking like a shotgun. The slurry of ice provides resting places for one of the world's largest congregations of harbor seals.

Traffic in the bay increased from about 15 ship visits in 1989 to 170 in 2007, according to the study, with as many as five ships in Disenchantment Bay visiting in one day. Alaska Cruise Association members made 133 trips there last year.

Harbor seals are the backbone of subsistence culture in Yakutat, said Caroline Powell, a former board member of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. Seals are eaten dried, smoked and canned. Oil was rendered and used to preserve food. Though it's not used to preserve food anymore, oil is added to food for flavor — like soy sauce, Powell said.

Fish, berries, seaweed and shellfish are all important, she said, but are only available seasonally.

"The seal is there all the time," she said.

Community officials have long feared the effects of cruise ships, said her husband, Larry Powell, a former Yakutat mayor. The National Park Service has jurisdiction on one side of the bay and the National Forest Service on the other, but neither of those agencies nor the NOAA Fisheries or the Coast Guard has adequately monitored cruise ship activity in the isolated community perched between Alaska's Panhandle and southcentral region, Powell said.

The study tried to find out if interruptions by cruise ships strained seals. Researchers made their observations from on board cruise ships and in aerial surveys, Jansen said.

Seals stayed on ice when cruise ships were 600 meters away — about five and a half football fields — but the number of animals hitting the water rose steeply as ships approached closer than 500 meters. Seals of all ages — 90 percent — were sent swimming when a cruise ship moved within 100 meters, or about 91 yards.

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