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Yakutat head tax survives 1st talks

Cruise industry working to remove new ship passenger fees

Posted: Monday, March 26, 2001

The first round of talks between cruise line officials and Yakutat leaders did not kill a passenger tax on the city's books since January or solve environmental concerns.

However, the cruise lines tentatively agreed to fund a seal study and find ways around using Yakutat's medical staff, according to a cruise ship representative. Tribal and civic leaders plan to resume talks with cruise reps next month.

Four cruise line representatives went to Yakutat this month hoping to convince the town to rescind the $1.50 passenger fee adopted by its assembly two months ago. The city approved the fee, even though most cruise passengers never step foot in Yakutat, saying sick passengers from ships traveling through borough waters have taken a toll on city medical services.

Tribal leaders also worried the ships were hurting subsistence animals in nearby Disenchantment Bay, a prime birthing area for seals and a popular destination for cruise ships angling for a view of the Hubbard Glacier. The tribe said the ships move too close to seals and pups, forcing the animals to abandon the safety of the ice floes.

The cruise reps met separately with tribal and city leaders, said Acting City Manager Paul Wescott, noting the city meeting was brief because cruise officials spent most of the day with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe. The Assembly has not decided whether to rescind the tax, Wescott said.

"There was no real resolution," he said.

Tribal leaders and cruise officials talked mostly about environmental concerns at the March 13 meeting, said tribe president Bert Adams Sr., adding the tribe is leaving the head tax issue to the city.

Adams said the cruise lines did not agree to stay a certain distance from the glacier a major point of contention between the two sides. The tribe recognizes a

demarcation line across Disenchantment Bay roughly four miles away from Hubbard Glacier, and it does not want the ships to cross it during seal-pupping season. The ships cut through the icebergs beyond the line, forcing mothers and pups to leave the ice floes and separate, Adams said.

However, cruise executive John Hansen said the tribal boundary is too distant from the glacier so far away, passengers would not be able to see it. The industry would rather avoid the ice floes than observe the line, said Hansen, who attended the meeting. He suggested the industry fund a study to determine the best distance between ships and seals on ice.

"We think it ought to be based on the science of staying away from the ice floes when seals are on the ice floes and base it on that kind of research, rather than a hard and fast line," said Hansen of the North West CruiseShip Association, which represents nine cruise lines operating in Alaska.

Although Adams characterized both sides as gridlocked on the issue, the tribe decided to gather more information on seals and their interactions with ships by interviewing subsistence hunters before the next meeting, scheduled for mid-April, he said. The research could prompt the tribe to change its position and either waive the line or support an alternative boundary proposed by the cruise companies that is roughly two miles closer to the glacier, he said.

"We need to get this research done before we can waive that line because we really don't know what's going on up there. We don't know whether those cruise ships are affecting the seal pupping or not. We have a lot of speculation," Adams said. "We might be able to waive that or go with their own recommendation."

Adams said he left the meeting with the impression the cruise lines had agreed to limit the number of ships in Disenchantment Bay to one at a time and ban vessels from a seal-pupping area between the mainland and so-called Egg Island. However, Hansen said it's premature to say they reached agreement on those issues.

Kathy Dye may be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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