Most boaters won't be allowed to approach within 100 yards of humpback whales in Alaska under federal rules that take effect July 2. The endangered whales and their calves feed from spring to fall in Alaska waters.
The National Marine Fisheries Service regulations, published today, also require a "slow, safe speed" when vessels are near a humpback whale. And the rules reiterate the current laws that prohibit disruption of a whale's normal activity or prior activity.
"Reputable (tour) operators are absolutely 100 percent behind that as a regulation. That is the way it should be," said Douglas Ward, owner of Dolphin Jet Boat Tours in Juneau, whose three vessels mainly do whale-watching tours. "What's good for the animals is good for us, and this is good for the animals."
The only exemptions from the rules are for commercial fishing vessels while they're actively fishing or tending gear; vessels limited in their ability to maneuver, such as tugs towing a barge; and government vessels on duty.
The rules supplement existing voluntary guidelines for watching marine mammals, which
recommend people stay at least 100 yards away and watch the animals for no more than a half-hour.
The need for rules "stems from growing pressure on marine mammals in general and especially on feeding humpbacks in Alaska waters," said Kaja Brix, the Fisheries Service wildlife biologist in Juneau who wrote the rules.
The number of charter vessels that include wildlife viewing has grown substantially in Alaska in the past 10 years, although figures aren't available, the Fisheries Service said.
The 1996 guidelines for viewing marine mammals are voluntary and not enforceable. Meanwhile, the federal laws against harassing marine mammals and endangered species are so ambiguous that they were hard to enforce, Brix said.
Charter captains can feel pressure from clients to get near whales, especially when they see other boats getting closer, said Jeff Passer, special agent in charge of enforcement in Alaska for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"These distance regulations help them tell a client, "No, there's a law, we can't get any closer," Passer said.
The Center for Marine Conservation wanted the rules to apply to all whales and to allow only two vessels at a time be in a zone 200 to 300 yards from a whale and for a limited time.
"It's a growing industry," Alaska region director Kris Balliet said of charters. "And we have concerns about the cumulative impacts of the vessels, including noise, on the animals," she said.
The Fisheries Service had proposed to keep boaters 200 yards away from humpbacks. But the agency reduced the distance partly because tour boat operators and whale experts said a longer distance harmed the human viewing experience while not adding any protection for the whales.
The agency added the rules about speed, which were not in the original proposal, to reduce the chance of whales being killed or badly hurt in collisions with boats.
Fines to punish people who violate the rules are likely to be similar to those handed out near Hawaii for violating similar distance rules, Passer said. They range from $400 to $800 for noncommercial vessels, and $800 to $3,000 for commercial vessels.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.