(5:15 p.m.) -- A highlight for passengers on Alaska cruises visiting Hubbard Glacier is a close-up of harbor seals and their adorable pups. But, federal officials are concerned the animals may be suffering from all that attention, and they may recommend rules that would keep ships and seals from getting up-close-and-personal.
A study by the National Marine Mammal Lab -- part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- which was published last year in the Journal of Wildlife Management, concluded that harbor seals are more likely to jump into the cold water when disturbed by cruise ships, and that could be affecting their numbers and health. The pupping and molting seasons, when seals are most vulnerable, occurs from May to September, the peak cruise time.
The study placed several possible regulations on the table that could force cruise ships to make some changes. Ships may be required to stay at least 500 meters (about 540 yards) from the seals and carry trained observers to aid in selecting routes that don't disturb seals. A total exclusion of cruise ships from Disenchantment Bay is also not out of the question: Some Alaskan waters, such as Johns Hopkins Inlet in Glacier Bay, have already been made off-limits to cruise ships during the summer months to protect seals.
In an e-mail to Cruise Critic, Aleria Jensen, a marine mammal specialist for NOAA Fisheries Service, said there is no timeline for making any final decision. Officials will first seek "broad public involvement to develop a course of action." Opinions will be solicited from cruise-ship operators, scientists and members of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, Alaska native subsistence hunters who rely on the seals for food. "In other words, we have to ask ourselves what strategies best protect seals and what solutions are viable for the tour industry," Jensen said.
About 150 cruises operated by seven lines -- Princess, Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas, Holland America, Oceania and Silversea -- will visit Hubbard Glacier in 2011. It remains unclear how the cruise lines will react if rules are changed.
Tim Rubacky, a spokesman for Oceania and Regent Seven Seas, said in an e-mail that they would be supportive of "all legislation that aims to protect our natural resources and wildlife." He said they hope that a ban will not be instituted, as "glacier cruising is a hallmark of our itineraries," but added that they would look for alternatives if necessary.
Princess did not return e-mail and phone requests for comment. Spokespeople for Holland America, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity referred questions to the Alaska Cruise Association, which did not return numerous phone calls and e-mails. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Regent Seven Seas said their ships currently stay at least 500 meters from the seals.
The impact of cruise ships on seals has been a concern throughout Alaska for some time. In 2009, ships entering Glacier Bay were urged by park officials to stay at least a quarter-mile away from harbor seals. "When disturbed, the seal pups can be separated from their mothers, with potentially fatal consequences," the alert stated. "Disturbances by passing vessels can also stress molting seals and impact their health."
The Disenchantment Bay study began in 2001, and much of it was conducted in 2002, when federal officials, with cooperation from the cruise lines, observed seal behavior from a total of 76 ships operated by Regent Seven Seas, Holland America, Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and Seabourn.
The cruise ship industry has had an up-and-down relationship with Alaska in recent years. Capacity was increasing by leaps and bounds -- ship traffic to Disenchantment Bay, for example, increased from 15 ships in 1989 to 170 in 2007 -- until voters approved a cruise-passenger tax of $46 a head in 2006. Lines reacted by pulling ships, causing the state legislature last year to reduce the tax to $34.50. Some lines, such as Princess, have now announced additional ship deployments to Alaska, beginning in 2012.
--by Carol Sottili, Cruise Critic Contributor
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