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Alaska Natives in Yakutat are protesting a decision by cruise lines to send more ships to the Hubbard Glacier this month, according to the president of Yakutat's tribe.
The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe is worried the move will set a precedent and more ships will visit the scenic area near the village next year, possibly hurting the seal population in Disenchantment Bay, site of the glacier in northern Southeast.
"More ships going in means more pressure on the environment," said tribe president Bert Adams Sr.
The tribe this week fired off a letter to John Hansen of the North West CruiseShip Association, which represents nine cruise lines operating in Alaska. Hansen said he had not received the letter and that it was premature to comment.
"We need to talk to the tribal council about this. I haven't spoken with them yet, but it's something we need to do," Hansen said.
The decision by cruise lines to make more visits to Hubbard Glacier stems from a recent court ruling. A federal judge last week ordered an immediate reduction to the number of cruise ship entries in Glacier Bay National Park. In response, the National Park Service banned nine entries scheduled this month.
The decision affected four cruise lines. Princess Cruises must divert two cruises, and it chose nearby Hubbard Glacier as the alternative for both voyages. Holland America must divert five cruises, and a spokesman said four, possibly five, of the cruises will visit the Hubbard instead.
Norwegian Cruise Lines and World Explorer each must divert one cruise, and both companies chose Tracy Arm southeast of Juneau over the Hubbard. World Explorer also will visit Icy Bay en route to Seward, according to a spokesman.
That means six or seven additional cruises will visit Hubbard Glacier in August. Although the seal birthing season in Disenchantment Bay is over, the Yakutat tribe fears the increase will carry over to next year's pupping season in May and June.
During pupping season, seals tend to their young on ice floes near the glacier. The tribe believes the ships are hurting the population an important food source for some Yakutat residents. However, cruise officials are reluctant to cap voyages to the area until they see evidence the ships are affecting the animals.
"We want to make sure whatever decisions we make are based on good science and good understanding of what is occurring," Hansen said.
The cruise lines have agreed to stay 500 yards away from ice floes bearing seals and to fund a study on the interaction between ships and seals. However, the tribe does not want any increase in cruise visits until the study is complete, said Adams, the tribal president.
"We've already agreed that the 155 ships that were scheduled to come into (Disenchantment) Bay this year was the limit, and now they're threatening to detour more ships," Adams said. "The tribe has taken the position we want to see a very limited amount of activity up there."
Congress might make Yakutat's problem go away. A bill passed by the Senate includes a provision to freeze the number of allowable cruise voyages to Glacier Bay at 139 ships the same number in effect before a federal appeals court lowered the number to 107. If the measure passes, the ships would not have to divert to the Hubbard next year.
The measure was awaiting action in a House-Senate conference committee when Congress took its August recess. U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, during a stop in Juneau on Thursday lamented that the pending congressional action won't happen in time to reverse the court's ruling for this month's voyages. Congress is now in recess until September.
Empire reporter Bill McAllister contributed to this report.