No one would be able to approach within 200 yards of a humpback whale in Alaska, under a federal rule proposed today.
The proposal follows explosive growth in the whale-watching and charter-fishing industries in Southeast Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula.
It would supplement what now are simply voluntary guidelines for watching marine mammals, which recommend that people stay at least 100 yards from marine mammals and watch them for no more than a half-hour.
The proposal is intended to give mariners a clear rule to follow when they come across the endangered whales, which feed in waters off Alaska from spring to fall, fisheries service officials said.
It's the only time all year the whales feed, so it's important not to disrupt them or the schooling fish they prey upon, said National Marine Fisheries Service enforcement agent Ron Antaya in Juneau.
``If they don't get all the chow they need in Alaska, they may not make it back next year,'' he said.
The only exception to the proposed new rule would be some commercial fishermen while they're actively fishing, Antaya said.
Larry Dupler of Orca Enterprises, which runs one whale-watching boat in Juneau, supports the proposed rule and said it wouldn't hurt the visitor industry. A lot of tour boats already watch whales from a few hundred yards away, he said.
And Dupler said the rule could help the industry. He said he's seen humpbacks leave the area apparently in reaction to boats. A cow and a calf moved out of a secluded cove near Juneau when boats discovered them, he said.
``If we keep crowding these guys, there's a good chance they may move away from us here,'' he said.
The fisheries service considered other restrictions, such as speed limits or limits on whale-watching time, but the agency rejected those as unenforceable.
Regulators said the problem with the current guidelines is that they aren't always followed and they aren't enforceable.
``We couldn't do anything about people not adhering to guidelines,'' said Kaja Brix, a fisheries service wildlife biologist in Juneau.
Mariners will still be subject to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits ``taking'' -- defined as hunting, capturing, collecting, killing or harassing, or attempting to do so. Violators can be fined or even imprisoned in extreme cases.
The problem, Antaya said, is that harassment is hard to define for the public and hard to prosecute. Many times federal attorneys decided not to prosecute cases because the law is so vague, he said.
The proposed rule would prohibit anyone from approaching within 200 yards of a humpback whale in Alaska. That includes what's called interception -- when a boat places itself in the path of a whale so that it surfaces.
The rule doesn't require vessels to leave if a whale surfaces nearby or approaches a boat. That's because quickly moving away may be more disruptive than staying quietly in place, Antaya said.
Regulators don't have firm figures on how many boats could be affected. But they and tour-industry members agree the number of charter-fishing and whale-watching boats has jumped in recent years. The rules also affect private boats, including kayaks.
The penalty hasn't been determined yet, but it probably would be a fine, Antaya said. The fisheries service expects to be able to enforce the rule with readings from range-finders from its own boats, or with testimony, range-finder readings and photographs from witnesses.
The fisheries service is taking public comment on the proposed rule until Aug. 10. Send comments to Mike Payne, National Marine Fisheries Service, P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, Alaska 99802-1668, or by fax to 907-586-7012. The proposed rule is on the Internet at www.fakr.noaa.gov under the news section.
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