WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering whether it should propose regulations to prevent vessels from disturbing harbor seals in Alaska's glacial fjords, and is asking for public input.
According to data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), cruise ship traffic is the biggest offender among vessels disturbing the seals, posing a threat to the species' survival and reproduction.
Vessel-based tourism in Alaska has been increasing at a rapid pace, especially visits to tidewater glaciers, which attract well over a million visitors per year, according to a NOAA press release. "Currently, all cruise ships visiting Alaska enter one or more tidewater glacial fjords. Four of the five most heavily visited sites ... have no specific management measures in place to protect harbor seals."
The fjords serve as sensitive nursery areas for harbor seals, according to the press release. They comprise a small part of the Alaskan coast, but host the largest aggregations of seals in the state. Some glacial sites have experienced a steep decline in harbor seal populations, as well as a high rate of ice loss.
"NOAA Fisheries believes that the rapid rise in the occurrence of tour vessels in Alaska, in conjunction with vessels concentrating in glacial areas (up to five per day), represents a likely threat with a demonstrated potential to alter the natural behavior of seals during the critical periods of breeding and molting, which could then adversely affect the health and persistence of glacier-associated seal populations," the press release noted. "Impacts include displacement, which can increase the risk of mother-pup separation during a dependent life stage when pups need maternal calories and protection in order to survive. Further, when seals are flushed from ice floes, pups are at risk from cold temperature stress with small increases in time submerged in water of 3-5 C°."
The NMFS points out in its advance notice of proposed rule making that seals cannot afford to waste energy required for birthing, feeding pups, mating, hunting and other survival efforts.
The agencies want to decrease instances of seal "take." The Marine Mammal Protection Act defines "take" as harassing, hunting, capturing, killing or attempting to harass, hunt, capture or kill the seals. The NMFS definition includes "the negligent or intentional operation of an aircraft or vessel, or the doing of any other negligent or intentional act which results in disturbing or molesting a marine mammal," the action noted.
Currently, the NMFS has "recommended viewing guidelines," which suggest vessels stay 100 yards away from harbor seals. Data collected by the agency, however, suggests seals begin to break for water when vessels come within 500 yards.
Many harbor seal stocks are stable or slightly increasing, but the Gulf of Alaska stock is small compared to its abundance in the 1970s and 1980s and may be continuing to decline. The noted decline and studies conducted jointly by the NMFS and native Alaskan tribes indicate the potential need for restrictions to ensure the protection of the species.
The NMFS requests comments on whether conservation measures, regulations or other management action would be appropriate. The management measures could include limiting vessel movements to specific corridors, requiring movement boundaries relative to ice, limiting speed, and setting maximum approachable distances and time closures for certain areas during critical periods, such as pup weening.
The NMFS will accept comments through May 13.
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