- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - New voluntary guidelines for cruise ships and other tour boats aimed at protecting harbor seals, especially vulnerable nursing pups, in Alaska’s glacial fjords were announced Wednesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Previous voluntary guidelines called for vessels to stay at least 100 yards away from seals on ice floes. After determining that seals are 25 times more likely to flush into cold fjord water at that distance, the agency came up with a new voluntary guideline of 500 yards, a buffer of more than a quarter-mile.

“This is an effort to prevent disturbance,” said Aleria Jensen, harbor seal co-management coordinator.

Fewer than two-dozen tidewater glaciers are found in south-central and southeast Alaska, but they provide essential habitat for significant numbers of harbor seals. In Icy Bay northwest of Yakutat at the top of Alaska’s Panhandle, more than 5,000 harbor seals can be found with 1,000 pups born annually.

Cruise ships, charter vessels and boats on day tours to see glaciers or seals can disturb the marine mammals. Researchers determined that more than 75 percent of the seals flush into water before boats reach the 100-yard threshold.

Pups were in danger of becoming separated from their mothers. Biologists also said they could burn calories in the near-freezing water that they might need later to survive their first winter.

The agency worked with the tourism industry to develop guidelines that reflect the latest research while allowing tour boat operators to maintain tour highlights.

The guidelines call for vessels to travel into fjords in early morning and evening hours when fewer seals are on ice, to avoid water with more than 50 percent ice cover and to avoid loud noises and wakes.

Additional restrictions were recommended for Disenchantment Bay and Tracy Arm from May 15 to June 30, when large numbers of pups are present.

NOAA Fisheries and others will monitor the fjords to determine if the voluntary guidelines are sufficient to protect harbor seals, Jensen said.

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