My Turn: Keeping whales, sea lions and people safe

Here in Alaska, we live with some of the most incredible wildlife in the world. Wildlife viewing is part of what makes our corner of the planet so special and draws so many visitors to our state.

Living in the middle of wildlife habitat as we do in Alaska comes with responsibility — the responsibility for each of us to dwell among these special creatures in a manner that minimizes harmful encounters between humans and wildlife, and to educate others on how to do that as well.

This is especially true when it comes to marine mammals like whales and sea lions. All marine mammals are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and any species on the list of threatened or endangered species is additionally protected under the Endangered Species Act. When it comes to encounters with marine mammals, not only could you be placing yourself and others in danger, but also you could be breaking the law — and that could result in a fine.

Several recent incidents in Southeast Alaska waters suggest that a reminder is in order to help keep marine mammals and people safe from one another. Unfortunately, NOAA Fisheries has received reports this summer of commercial and recreational boats crowding whales, people feeding sea lions, and even a report of people intentionally approaching feeding whales on stand-up paddleboards. Such behavior can be extremely dangerous for humans and marine mammals alike.

We at NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region encourage you to observe our marine mammal viewing Code of Conduct for your own well-being, and for that of marine mammals:

• Keep your distance — stay at least 100 yards away from marine mammals at all times.

• Keep it short — limit time spent observing an individual or one group to no more than 30 minutes.

• Don’t crowd or entrap — do not encircle or trap marine mammals between boats, or boats and shore.

• Don’t cause distress — if a marine mammal approaches your vessel, put the engine in neutral and allow it to pass.

• Don’t chase — pursuit of marine mammals is prohibited by federal law.

• Don’t feed — offering food, discarding fish or fish waste, or any food item in the vicinity of a marine mammal is prohibited and can result in the animal aggressively seeking food from humans.

• Don’t touch or swim with the animals — they can behave unpredictably.

If you see a marine mammal in distress, don’t try to help the animal on your own. Instead, immediately report the injured or entangled animal by calling NOAA’s Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1-877-925-7773, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement 24-hour hotline at 1-800-853-1964, or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. By law, only trained responders are authorized to assist marine mammals in distress, and they have specialized tools for doing so.

Put simply, if you cause a marine mammal to change its natural behavior, you may be violating federal law. Please, for your own safety, the safety of others, and the health of marine mammals, act responsibly when viewing Alaska’s wild marine mammals.

For more information, visit http://alaskafisheries.noaa.gov/protectedresources/mmv/guide.htm.

 

• Jon Kurland is the Assistant Regional Administrator for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region, which works to protect the viability of protected species—primarily marine mammals. He lives in Juneau.

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