A typical harbor seal pup might spend 40 percent of its time in the water. The study concluded that a modest increase to 50 percent for younger pups required them to burn significant calories that might otherwise be devoted to building fat needed to make it through their first winter. The problem of burning too many calories in the water would be compounded if cruise ships interrupted nursing.
Cruise ships have a stated policy to avoid approaching seals closer than 500 meters. Researchers observed ships breaking that barrier 85 percent of the time.
"I can recall several conversations where the crew and the captain on the bridge were like, 'Oh, well we didn't see many seals this trip, huh?' Meanwhile, we had racked up maybe 100 observations," Jansen said. "So it was clear that they weren't seeing what we were seeing."
The study recommends that cruise ships stay 500 meters away from seals, especially during pupping, and carry trained observers to aid in selecting routes that don't disturb seals. A blanket exclusion of ships during seal pupping and molting should also be on the table, Jansen said.
John Binkley, spokesman for the Alaska Cruise Association, said he was not aware that NOAA might be looking at new rules. Vessels continue to operate under voluntary procedures worked out in 2001 following meetings with the tribal council.
"We are always willing to work with NOAA or any other government agency to protect and preserve the resources and environment that visitors come to Alaska to experience," he said by e-mail.
Jensen, the marine mammal specialist, said the "take" provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act outlaws killing or harassing seals. "When you have an obvious change of behavior, we interpret that as a 'take,' like a seal flushing from an iceberg"
Jensen said regulators must decide whether new rules will apply only near Yakutat or at other glacial fjords.
"At this stage the agency certainly recognizes that additional conservation measures are needed to protect harbor seals, particularly in glacial habitats, as this study has indicated."
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