INTRO: While voluntary guidelines keep most recreational boaters and tour operators from getting too close to marine mammals in Alaska, there are no limits to how close people can get to other kinds of wildlife. As Doug Schneider reports in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio, one wildlife tour operator is drafting a set of guidelines for viewing birds and other wildlife he hopes boaters will adopt.
STORY: From his office window overlooking Homer, Alaska's, Kachemak Bay, Terry Johnson watches boats of almost every size and description come and go from the town's small boat harbor. Some are sportfishing vessels headed out in search of trophy-size salmon or halibut. Others are sightseeing boats on a quest for whales, sea otters and seabirds. As one of the state's most visited communities, Homer sits on the doorstep of a region teaming with wildlife.
But not everyone behaves as they should around the bay's wildlife, says Terry Johnson. Johnson is Homer's Marine Advisory Agent with the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He helps coastal communities develop their fisheries and tourism economies. He also runs a small wildlife tour boat business. He says that while there's been a successful public awareness effort aimed at keeping people a safe distance from marine mammals like sea otters and whales, other kinds of wildlife have been overlooked.
JOHNSON: "I think the biggest issues right now are not with mammals so much as with birds. I think the greater need is to protect birds from inappropriate behavior. I think a lot of people are clued in to not disturbing marine mammals, but I don't think nearly as many people are clued in to not disturbing birds."
Johnson says when it comes to seabirds, it's often hard to know just how close you can get, since they often don't give any warning that they're being disturbed by your presence. When people get too close, the seabirds just fly away—but by then it's too late. To help solve the problem, Johnson is drafting a set of voluntary guidelines for viewing seabirds and other wildlife.
Johnson proposed the idea of voluntary guidelines recently in a newsletter circulated to area sportfishing and tour operators.
JOHNSON: "I started to get a few responses, and it was a mix of responses, what you'd expect to get. Some who responded felt we had enough regulations, enough rules—that it's a big ocean out there and we don't need another set of regulations to contend with. I've also heard from people who felt it was an issue and that guidelines were required. I haven't heard anyone yet say they thought regulations were required."
What Johnson proposes aren't regulations that carry penalties and the force of law, but rather they are a first attempt at educating people about the need to maintain a safe distance from all wildlife.
JOHNSON: "People have to be taught that it's harmful to animals. It wouldn't occur to most of us that this would be harmful to them. So I think instead of more regulations, what we need is an enhanced educational effort. I think most people will try to minimize their impact once they understand the importance of doing so."
Johnson says he'd like to get more feedback on the idea of voluntary wildlife viewing guidelines. If the response is favorable, he'd like to distribute the guidelines on posters and placards to boat operators across the state.
OUTRO: This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I'm Doug Schneider.
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Thanks to the following individual for help preparing this script:
Terry L. Johnson
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