Frequent Questions: Alaska Harbor Seal Approach Guidelines in Glacial Fjords
FAQs about approach guidelines for harbor seals in Alaska's glacial fjords.
What led NOAA to develop new voluntary approach guidelines?
- Increasing evidence from directed research indicated that previous marine mammal approach measures (voluntary guidelines to avoid approaching within 100 yards) were not adequately protecting harbor seals from disturbance in Alaska’s glacial fjords.
- Tidewater glacier areas provide essential habitat for harbor seals, especially when nursing pups and molting. Such areas are only available to seals in southcentral and southeast Alaska, where there are fewer than two dozen ice-filled inlets.
- Over the last few decades, harbor seal numbers have declined significantly in two glacier fjords: Glacier Bay in southeast Alaska and Aialik Bay in southcentral Alaska. Increased vessel traffic over this same time-period, combined with the prospect of diminished glacial ice floes in the future due to climate change, makes disturbance from vessel traffic to individual seals an important issue for survival and reproduction.
- In Alaska, glacial habitat for harbor seals has been protected in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve through approach regulations and time-area closures during pupping and molting seasons. However, four of the five most heavily visited sites—Tracy Arm, Endicott Arm, College Fjord, and Disenchantment Bay—have no specific measures in place to protect sensitive seal habitat or limit disturbance of seals.
- Glaciers in Alaska are experiencing unprecedented rates of ice loss, and at some tidewater glaciers, harbor seals are already coping with reduced ice cover which may make them more sensitive to other impacts.
Why is NOAA protecting harbor seals if they aren't an endangered species?
- All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which does not allow for any human activity that disrupts their behavior, such as that required for nursing young and breeding.
- The MMPA acknowledges the importance of intact habitat for marine mammals, stating that “efforts should be made to protect essential habitats, including the rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance for each species of marine mammal from the adverse effect of man’s actions.”
- Protecting harbor seals via voluntary guidelines may help to avoid the need for more stringent management measures in the future.
How did NOAA start this process?
- In 2013, NOAA Fisheries published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for Harbor Seal Disturbance in Glacial Fjords, Alaska. At that time, NOAA sought public input as to whether, and if so, what kind of management measures may be needed to preserve the important function of tidewater glacial habitat, reduce disturbance of harbor seals, and minimize the chance of long-term impacts to the population in Alaska.
What were the results of this process?
- NOAA incorporated public comments and recommendations from the tour industry, the Southeast Alaska Pilots’ Association (which, by state law, places pilots on cruise ships), the State of Alaska (Alaska Department of Fish and Game), federal agencies (National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service), Alaska Native organizations, and others in developing the guidelines.
- NOAA determined the best approach for minimizing impacts to harbor seals in glacial areas in Alaska would be to promote voluntary approach guidelines, based on the best available science. This has proven to be an effective strategy in other areas for changing vessel operator behavior with minimal impacts on user groups.
- In July 2015, NOAA Fisheries unveiled new voluntary guidelines for vessels in glacial fjords, including area‐specific voluntary measures for Tracy Arm and Disenchantment Bay. These are non‐binding recommendations to reduce disturbance to harbor seals during the spring and summer when the animals use floating glacial ice for pupping, nursing and molting, while still providing for high-quality glacier and wildlife viewing opportunities. These guidelines are voluntary but strongly recommended to help vessels comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Do viewing guidelines and/or regulations exist for other marine mammal species?
- All marine mammals are protected from harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This means that “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, sheltering” is illegal.
- NOAA Fisheries recommends a general marine mammal viewing “code of conduct” which includes remaining a minimum distance of 100 yards from marine mammals and limiting time spent observing animals to 30 minutes or less.
- Viewing regulations exist for humpback whales in Alaska and Hawaii, killer whales in Washington State, and North Atlantic right whales. In contrast to voluntary guidelines, these regulations are mandatory under federal law.
- For more information, see the following:
What is the history of vessel traffic in glacial fjords?
- Vessel-based tourism in Alaska began in the late 1800’s with relatively few passengers but numbers have increased rapidly in recent decades. From May through September, approximately 850 cruise ships carrying a total of nearly one million passengers visit southeastern Alaska each year, while commercial and private vessels bring thousands of additional passengers.
- Some tidewater glaciers are visited daily by cruise ships and smaller tour boats. The cumulative impact of multiple vessels at certain sites on a given day can result in a large number of seals being disturbed.
How does disturbance impact harbor seals?
- Tidewater glacier areas are important habitat for harbor seals in Alaska, particularly during pupping and molting season. Repeated exposure to vessel traffic and disturbance can degrade these nursery areas for harbor seals and thus represents a potential long-term threat to the population.
- When seals are flushed from ice floes, pups are at risk from small increases in time submerged in cold water. Displacement can increase the risk of mother-pup separation during a dependent life stage when pups require maternal calories and protection in order to survive.
- A study published by NOAA scientists suggests that a single ship in one glacial fjord may cause up to 14 percent of the local seal population (11 percent of pups) to flush into the water (Jansen et al. 2015). With multiple vessels visiting daily, overall disturbance in these seal habitats is likely higher.
- Harbor seals can be disturbed at up to 500–1000 meters (or about 0.25 to 0.66 mi); seals approached by vessels at 100 m (about 100 yds.) can be 25 times more likely to flush from the ice than seals at 500 m; and seals approached head-on are also more likely to flush from the ice (Jansen et al. 2006, 2010).
- A study published in 2015 indicated that exposure of harbor seals to increased vessel traffic may result in altered behavior, increased energetic expenditures, and increased exposure to stress, which could in turn negatively affect the health, condition, and reproductive success of harbor seal populations that reside in glacial fjords (Karpovich et al. 2015).
What do the guidelines recommend?
The following guidelines are recommended for all vessel types in all glacial areas year round. It may not be practicable to follow every guideline on each visit, but vessel operators should exercise caution to minimize disturbance to seals.
- All vessels (kayaks to cruise ships) should strive to maintain 500 yds. (~ .25 mi) from seals without compromising safe navigation. Make an approach plan to avoid surprising seals. Be equally cautious to reduce disturbance when departing the fjord as arriving.
- Minimize wake, avoid abrupt changes in course or engine pitch, and avoid loud noises (such as collisions with ice) in the vicinity of seals.
Why? Vessel activity that causes seals to flush from the ice into the water can harm seals (pups in particular) and may constitute harassment under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
- Try to avoid traveling through thick ice. The absence of seals on the ice does not mean the area is not being used.
Why? Glacial ice is an important harbor seal nursery area which provides important habitat for birthing and nursing of pups.
- Time visits when feasible to minimize overlap with the peak numbers of seals hauled out midday and minimize the chances of disturbance.
Why? Research shows most seals tend to haul out during the middle of the day (about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; the warmest hours) when most vessels visit glacial fjords.
Recommended for all vessel types in specified areas (May 15 to June 30)
- At two specific sites (Disenchantment Bay and Tracy Arm) where high vessel traffic coincides with large numbers of pups, additional seasonal area protections are advised for mothers and pups from May 15-June 30. For site-specific measures, please see the Alaska Harbor Seal Approach Guidelines in Glacial Fjords (2015) brochure.
Why? It is necessary to provide further protection while mothers are rearing pups in these areas due to the high vessel traffic coinciding with large numbers of pups.
How does NOAA plan to monitor the new voluntary guidelines?
- NOAA Fisheries and partners will monitor these glacial tidewater habitats to determine if this voluntary approach is providing a sufficient level of protection for seals. We ask vessel operators to report on the efficacy of these guidelines so we can improve them as needed over time. Finally, we will be re-initiating a working group that was created after the 2016 season, to assess the implementation of the guidelines and develop future goals for marine wildlife viewing.
How can I learn more about research on vessel disturbance to harbor seals?
- Harbor Seals in Alaska: NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region
- Haul-out patterns and effects of vessel disturbance on harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) on glacial ice in Tracy Arm, Alaska, Elizabeth A. Mathews. Lauri A. Jemison, Grey W. Pendleton, Karen M. Blejwas, Kevin E. Hood, Kimberly L. Raum-Suryan, January 2016
- Spatially Estimating Disturbance of Harbor Seals (Phoca vitulina), John K. Jansen , Gavin M. Brady, Jay M. Ver Hoef, Peter L. Boveng, July 1, 2015
- Combined physiological and behavioral observations to assess the influence of vessel encounters on harbor seals in glacial fjords of southeast Alaska, Shawna Karpovich, John Skinner, Jeff E. Mondragon, Gail M. Blundell, Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, December 2015
- Harbor Seal Species Profile
- Alaska Marine Mammal Viewing Guidelines
- Protecting Marine Life in Alaska