There was a time when the Tlingits of Yakutat demolished boats that disturbed pregnant seals in nearby Disenchantment Bay. The penalty was severe because of the marine mammal's importance to Yakutat, which harvests more seals than any community in Alaska.
"If a hunter did that, they'd take his canoe and equipment and destroy them," said elder Ted Valle, spokesman for the Galyax Kagwaataan clan. "The seal is still very important to us. We utilize it for food, clothing, oil and cultural ceremonies."
While Natives consider Yakutat's Disenchantment Bay a sacred place, cruise lines value it as a tour destination. Ships arrive each spring, the pupping season, and cruise close to the Hubbard Glacier, a prime birthing area.
No one's suggesting the ships be dismantled, but some residents are considering a nonviolent protest if cruise lines continue on their current course.
"If we can't work things out, we'll probably have an action where there's some civil disobedience with locals on boats to meet the ships," said Raymond Sensmeier, vice president of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp.
The Yakutat Borough Assembly, in an attempt to lessen impacts from increasing tour boat traffic, recently approved a head tax on passengers - even though most of them never step foot on land. The $1.50 per passenger tax, adopted Jan. 19, could raise about $300,000 for the borough.
Acting City Manager Paul Wescott said the money will help fund the town's clinic and emergency medical services, which treated passengers from last year's more than 150 sailings through borough waters.
Some revenue also will go toward monitoring pollution and disruption of seal habitat.
"The seal pupping issue needs to be addressed and we're prepared to work with the community on that," said Al Parrish, a spokesman for the North West CruiseShip Association.
Parrish, a vice president with Holland America, met with borough and tribal leaders in Yakutat last Wednesday. He told them the industry could help with medical expenses - including the purchase of a second ambulance - and funding for other services impacted by cruise ships.
But he disagreed with the need for additional monitoring of air and water pollution, calling it redundant.
"There's plenty of action at the state and federal levels that should go a long way in arresting any fears on environmental issues," Parrish said.
Yakutat leaders have drawn a line in the water, literally as well as figuratively, to protect pregnant seals and pups.
The tribal council observes a demarcation line across Disenchantment Bay about two miles from the face of the Hubbard Glacier. The imaginary line also depends on the location of the leading ice floe, which seals use as a haul-out for rest and protection from predators.
Cruise ships often cross the line to give passengers a closer view.
"I was up there when several ships were blasting their horns to try and make the glacier calf," Valle said. "It was quite a racket."
The noise frightens mothers away from pups and chases seals from the safety of the bay, said Bert Adams Sr., president of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.
"One time last summer I saw five or six pods of killer whales feeding on little seal pups," Adams said. "Without the protection of the ice floe, they were prime targets."
The tribal council voted last Thursday to support the borough head tax.
Parrish plans to return to Yakutat in mid-March, hoping to address the concerns of the community while convincing the assembly to rescind the passenger fee.
He calls it a "very strange tax" because the ships never dock and most passengers never step on shore.
"It's not the money aspect as much as the precedent of it," Parrish said.
The industry and community have until mid-May, when the first ship arrives, to work something out.
"As far as I know, the borough has every intention of enforcing the ordinance and I expect them to live up to their word and take us to court," assembly member Skip Ryman said. "It's not the first time the people of Yakutat have been up against great odds."
Mike Sica can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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