Arctic Science Journeys
Radio Script
humpback whale near boat

New federal restrictions, enacted after this photograph was taken in Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Monument, require all vessels to stay at least 100 yards away from humpback whales. Additional regulations to keep people away from other marine mammals are under consideration as the number of boats and people in the state increase. (Courtesy Kurt Byers, Alaska Sea Grant.)

Too Close for Comfort

INTRO: Many of us consider a day in Alaska's wilderness a success if we're able to get a good photograph of a bear, a whale or even a sea lion. But getting close enough for a good picture often causes stress on the animals. When it comes to the state's marine mammals, federal managers are considering restricting just how close people can get. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.

STORY: For years now, federal regulators have encouraged Alaska's boaters to follow voluntary guidelines aimed at minimizing stress on whales, sea lions and other marine mammals. Kaja Brix is a marine mammal biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau, Alaska. She says that while most people follow the guidelines, and keep their distance, many people don't.

BRIX: "From reports we've had, it ranges from people getting too close and causing some change in behavior, which is not okay, to people putting the bow of their boat onto a haul-out or buoy marker, for example, that has Steller sea lions hauled out on it, and causing them to flush into the water. Or people throwing objects or food at Steller sea lions or harbor seals to get some sort of reaction that they can take a photograph of."

Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued mandatory regulations requiring people stay at least 100 yards from humpback whales. Brix says the regulation is aimed at reining in the growing number of tour and recreational boats crowding the waters of Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound.

BRIX: "That regulation, which went into effect last July (2001), appears to have caused some change in the way people view humpback whales."

Yet Brix says many people don't apply that same distance standard to their viewing of other marine mammals. And the problem isn't just in Alaska. Nationwide, Brix says, various forms of marine mammal viewing—from swimming with dolphins in Florida to poking endangered monk seals in Hawaii—are causing problems. The bad behavior by some has prompted the agency to consider making new rules that require people stay a certain distance from marine mammals. The agency is currently seeking the public's suggestions for just what these new rules should be.

watching walruses
  Here, near Round Island, Alaska, walruses investigate a boat that had been anchored for several hours. It's not known if new regulations would require boaters to leave the area in cases like this. This is one issue federal officials invite the public to comment on as the agency ponders new regulations. (Courtesy Terry Johnson, Marine Advisory Program.)

Terry Johnson runs a small marine wildlife viewing business in Southwest Alaska. Each summer he takes visitors to see walrus in places like Walrus Island in Bristol Bay. He's also a University of Alaska Marine Advisory Agent who works with charter and tour boat operators. He says the problem isn't with the licensed tour vessels but with recreational boats.

JOHNSON: "You have, in my mind, three distinct categories of boat operators out there. You have the commercial ecotourism operators who tend to be plugged into these things. Then you have operators who primarily do other things like sportfishing but they do wildlife viewing on the side. Then you have recreational boaters who may be entirely clueless about these concerns."

Johnson believes that more regulations may be needed eventually, but he says the fisheries service should first try doing more to educate boaters not to get too close to marine mammals.

Steller sea lions
Getting too close to marine mammals, such as these endangered Steller sea lions in western Alaska, can cause undue stress on already strained animal populations. (Courtesy Kurt Byers, Alaska Sea Grant.)

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. So I think instead of more regulations, we need an enhanced educational effort. I think most people will try to minimize their impact once they understand the importance of doing so."

The National Marine Fisheries Service is taking suggestions and comments from the public on marine mammal viewing through April 1, 2002.

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.

Audio version and related Web sites (sidebar at top right)
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:

Kaja Brix, Wildlife Biologist
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service
Juneau, Alaska
Phone: 907-586-7824

Terry Johnson, Marine Advisory Agent
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program
4014 Lake Street, Suite 201B
Homer, Alaska 99603
Phone: (907) 235-5643

Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is

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Preventing Harassment from Human Activities Directed at Marine Mammals in the Wild Federal Register (67 FR 4379)—PDF

Related Web sites

Guidelines for Viewing Protected Marine Species in Alaska

NOAA news release: Final Approach Regulations to Protect Humpback Whales in Alaska

NOAA Final Rule: Humpback Whale Approach Regulations—PDF

University of Alaska Marine Advisory Program

Terry Johnson Profile

Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska

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