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Assessing the Costs and Benefits of Whale Watching in Juneau, Alaska


Heidi Pearson Heidi PearsonDepartment of Natural Sciences
University of Alaska Southeast



Whale watching is a global multibillion-dollar industry that provides important economic benefits and intangible benefits such as increased environmental awareness and conservation advocacy. As the whale watch industry grows, the health of whale populations and thus the viability of the industry may be jeopardized if whale watch pressure changes foraging behavior or causes chronic stress. The goal of this project is to assess the costs and benefits of whale watching in Juneau, Alaska, a premier whale watching destination. This project will: (1) identify costs by determining if whale movement and behavioral patterns are affected by whale watch vessel presence; (2) determine how these costs are related to the number, type, and proximity of vessels to whales, and whale group size, group type, and residency; and (3) identify benefits by measuring the educational and conservation value of whale watching. The project will use a surveyor's instrument or theodolite to observe changes to humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) movement and behavior according to whale watch vessel presence. Surveys will be administered to whale watch passengers to assess changes in knowledge, attitudes, values, intentions, and behaviors before and after whale watching. Results of this project will be shared with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) so that whale viewing regulations and guidelines may be refined and improved. Results will also be shared with whale watch operators to increase the effectiveness of onboard educational messages. The project will contribute to the growing body of literature on whale watch effects throughout the world and will be useful in developing appropriate and effective management strategies.

More information on this project can be found in a video describing the study and the BREACH lab.

This project has been highlighted in Juneau Empire and the CBC News.


The issue

Whale watching is an important revenue source in Southeast Alaska communities such as Juneau. However, the viability of the industry is critically dependent on the health of its resource, the whales. In recent years, the whale watch industry has burgeoned in Juneau and NMFS regulations are often not followed. Furthermore, short- and long-term effects of increased vessel pressure on whales are unknown. Only one study has assessed whale watch impacts in Juneau, and this was conducted 15 years ago when the whale population and industry were much smaller. There is a dire need to update this information and supplement it with an examination of the educational and conservation benefits of whale watching. Understanding these costs and benefits is essential for creating a mutually beneficial industry for tour operators, local communities, whales, and coastal ecosystems upon which all of these entities depend. This project coincides with Whale SENSE, a voluntary NMFS program for tour operators that aims to promote best practices in whale viewing behavior.

Why is this an Alaska Sea Grant project?

This project relates to 2014–2017 Alaska Sea Grant Strategic Plan Goal 1, “Healthy marine, coastal, and watershed ecosystems in Alaska,” specifically Strategy 3, “Develop and advise on best practices for commercial operators or boaters interacting with wildlife” and Strategy 5, “Provide decision makers with science-based information that can be used in developing policies governing use and conservation of resources.”

Research collaborators

Orca Enterprises
NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region


What researchers learned

During our first field season in Juneau, we assessed the cost of whale watching by observing changes to whale behavior, and the benefits of whale watching by assessing conservation and education benefits to passengers. Preliminary results based on observations of 157 humpback whale groups over 399 hours indicate that the average speed of whales being followed by boats is higher than those that are not. Further, more than two times as many observations of surface activity were observed in the presence vs. absence of boats. These results indicate that whales may increase energetic expenditure in the presence of whale watch vessels. Preliminary results based on 979 passenger surveys completed before, just after, or six months after a whale watch revealed that the percentage of passengers knowledgeable of guidelines and regulations doubled after a whale watch. Furthermore, between the before, after, and six-month survey periods, passengers more strongly supported the regulations enacted for the protection of whales. As guidelines and regulations are likely to become increasingly important in Juneau to mitigate any potential negative effects of whale watching, whale watch experiences have the potential to increase passenger support of these measures. Ultimately, this may lead to a positive feedback loop where passenger experience encourages operator compliance with guidelines and regulations.