ANCHORAGE — A federal agency is taking steps to determine whether cruise ships and other vessels that run up to southeast Alaska glaciers are harming harbor seals, which use ice floes from the glaciers as nurseries for their pups.
The National Marine Fisheries Service will conduct workshops in Juneau and Yakutat on April 22-23, seeking public comment on vessel interaction with harbor seals in glacial fjords.
Yakutat, a community of 622 at the top of Alaska’s Panhandle, has one of the highest uses of subsistence resources in the state, and harbor seals are the backbone of its subsistence food.
“We use the fur. We use the fat. It’s a substantial part of our diet, the meat,” said Victoria Demmert, president of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.
More than a decade ago, hunters reported seeing fewer harbor seals and said the suspected cause was disturbance by cruise ships.
Yakutat is situated at the head of Yakutat Bay, which leads to Disenchantment Bay and the spectacular Hubbard Glacier, which stretches 76 miles to Mount Logan in Canada’s Yukon Territory. The glacier at tidewater is 6 miles wide and more than 300 feet high.
Glacial ice that falls into the ocean provides resting places for one of the world’s largest congregations of harbor seals.
Pupping and molting seasons lasts from May through August. Pups bulk up on mother’s milk during four to six weeks of nursing. Pups burn crucial calories needed to survive their first winter if disturbed and forced into the chilly water.
Cruise ships have a stated policy of moving no closer than 500 meters to seals. In a 2010 study, National Marine Mammal Laboratory researchers observed ships breaking that barrier 85 percent of the time as the slow-turning vessels negotiated ice fields to reach close views of the glacier.
NMFS will collect testimony for potential conservation measures in Disenchantment Bay and other Alaska glacial habitats, including Glacier Bay and Aialik Bay, where harbor seal populations have declined.
Jon Kurland, assistant regional administrator for the agency’s protected resources division, acknowledged that the issue of harbor seal disturbance has been around for years but said court-mandated deadlines for other species took precedence.
The agency officially is giving advance notice of proposed rulemaking and has offered no specifics rules to be considered.
“We don’t feel like we’re quite well informed enough to put out a specific regulatory proposal,” Kurland said.
The agency could propose speed limits or observer requirements or simply close off some areas. It could order more research or decide no action is needed.
Demmert expects a big turnout in Yakutat and said she hoped it would not take another 10 to 15 years for rules protecting seals to be put in place. As many as five ships can be found some days in Disenchantment Bay, she said.
“We’re not against people being able to see what we have,” she said. “We just don’t want them to ruin it in the process. It isn’t everybody’s right to abuse the resource.”