A Balancing Act for Harbor Seals on Ice: Weighing Long-term Protection for Seals with a Growing Interest in Vessel-based Tourism
Alaska Marine Science Symposium poster
Recently, NOAA Fisheries published an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to consider regulations to protect tidewater-glacier habitats of harbor seals in Alaska, and limit vessel disturbance of seals using floating ice in those habitats. Despite vessels regularly operating within these habitats, they receive no specific protection other than voluntary guidelines to help provide seals a buffer from human activities. The ANPR was precipitated by numerous factors: stakeholder concern; the essential role of habitats for seals to rest, birth, nurse, and molt; a dramatic increase in vessel-based tourism over several decades; broadly-defined protections in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that are difficult to enforce; and recent findings suggesting that voluntary guidelines were inadequate to prevent disturbance. The scope of the ANPR encompassed activities of any person or vessel that may diminish the value of glacial habitats for harbor seals, result in unauthorized take under the MMPA, or cause detrimental individual- or population-level impacts. While the ANPR did not propose specific measures, public comments were solicited as to whether regulations are needed, and if so, what type of measures would be appropriate to protect seals. During the 60-day comment period, the agency convened public meetings to provide background on this action. NOAA Fisheries received seventy-five comments in response to the ANPR, from industry(29), general public(21), Alaska Native seal hunters and/or subsistence users(14), federal, state and municipal agencies(6), and non-profit organizations(5). Thirty-six of the commenters opposed regulatory action, thirty-two favored such action, and seven were neutral/undecided. Comments opposing regulation expressed the need for further study, a lack of information for adopting regulations, the adequacy of existing MMPA protections, the lack of evidence for population-level impact, concern over economic impact, and the effectiveness of voluntary guidelines. Comments favoring regulation expressed the inadequacy of existing guidelines to protect seals, scientific findings that vessel disturbance negatively affects seals, concern over cumulative impact of repeated disturbance, non-compliance with MMPA take provision, lack of effectiveness of voluntary guidelines, recommendations for enhanced enforcement and time-area closures/speed limits/approach distances. NOAA Fisheries is taking these responses under consideration as it proceeds with its decision-making process.