A proposed federal rule to keep boats 200 yards away from humpback whales in Alaska would harm tour companies, some boat owners told regulators. A whale research institute said the proposed rule wouldn't help the whales, either.
But other boat operators and conservation groups said the rule, as well as other requirements, is needed to keep the whales from being harassed or struck.
National Marine Fisheries Service officials have said they proposed the 200-yard rule as a simple way to protect the endangered whales which feed with their calves in Alaska in the summer from being chased off their feeding grounds.
Whales are thought to be sensitive to engine noise and pursuit by boats. And the closer the boats are to whales, the greater the possibility of a collision. Although there are no hard figures, the fisheries service said the number of tour boats, fishing charters and private boats in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska is growing.
Heather Peterson, a graduate student at Duke University's environmental school, told the fisheries service it was common to see up to 13 boats watching a single humpback over 90-minute sampling periods near Juneau this summer. She has seen eight boats closely following a whale while 20 other boats were traveling nearby and 20 others were trolling within a half-mile, she said.
Federal law prohibits harassing or harming endangered species and marine mammals in general, but the law is hard to prosecute, officials have said. And voluntary guidelines for watching marine mammals aren't always followed, they said. Those guidelines ask mariners to stay 100 yards away and watch the animals for no more than 30 minutes.
The 200-yard limit wouldn't please tour passengers, who already complain about the 100-yard distance, Rob Allen, president of Allen Marine Tours, told the fisheries service in written comments. The company served more than 100,000 passengers in Juneau, Sitka and Seward last summer, he said.
"If we are forced to view whales from a minimum 200-yard distance, even the more understanding of our customers will be significantly disappointed and it will result in serious damage to our business," Allen said.
Allen also said the rule would be hard to enforce and would give an unfair advantage to companies that broke the rule.
Like other commenters, Allen asked the fisheries service to turn the current guidelines into formal rules and enforce them, along with a requirement that boats slow down near whales to avoid collisions.
Even commenters who supported the 200-yard limit, such as the Marine Mammal Commission and the Center for Marine Conservation, often asked for additional protection such as vessel speed limits.
The Whale Center of New England, a research and education organization in Gloucester, Mass., opposed the 200-yard limit, saying it wasn't based on science. The center's director and chief scientist, Mason Weinrich, said if whales react to anything, they react to sound, not the nearness of vessels, and he called for speed limits to avoid collisions.
He called the proposed rule "an easily enforceable but ultimately meaningless regulation."
Enforcement agents have said speed limits are particularly hard to enforce. Speed is hard to measure on the water because the patrol vessel and the target vessel may be pushed in different directions and at different speeds by separate currents, said special agent Ron Antaya in the fisheries service's Juneau office.
The fisheries service will review the public comments and reconsider its proposed rule as it prepares a final draft, possibly before next tour season, officials said. The proposed rule does not apply to commercial fishing vessels while they're fishing. And it doesn't require vessels to move away from whales if they surface near a boat.