June 2009: With a large swath of open water between our vessel and the ice, a few seals raised their heads, watching the tour boat slowly ease by. Many visitors were watching the seals with quiet excitement, but most were entirely captivated by the impressive wall of ice we were approaching: a tidewater glacier rising out of the sea. Harbor seals typically use beaches and rocks as their haul-outs, but in places like Kenai Fjords National Park just southwest of Seward, some harbor seals can be found on ice floes throughout the summer. In fact, 15% of the harbor seals across Alaska rely on ice from glaciers to rest, give birth, and molt.
My role as an intern in 2009 was to count the number of harbor seals using the ice throughout the summer, and collect information about the ice conditions available for them. This was a new component of a larger project that had been started in 2002, which aimed to better understand the how many seals were in the area, how many pups were born annually, and determine if the tour boats were having any adverse impacts on the seals as they brought visitors to see the amazing glaciers and waters around our coastline.
Harbor seals, like all marine mammals in the USA, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The 1972 Act prevents physical harm or killing of marine mammals, but also restricts disturbances that cause significant changes to marine mammal behaviours. In the early 2000s, questions began to arise about whether the increasing number of visitors to Alaska were having negative impacts on seals. Were seals being disturbed by large cruise ships or smaller tour vessels visiting glaciers? Since seals need ice to rest, was entering the water when a boat approached causing them to use more energy? Were these effects worse for pups than for adults? This began a conversation between stakeholders—scientists, managers, tour companies, citizens using the waters near glaciers, and Alaska Natives who rely on healthy populations of seals for subsistence—to address the question:
With increasing tourism near glaciers, what could be done to identify and prevent unnecessary disturbance?
The Kenai Fjords Tour Vessel Operators Association, in collaboration with the North Gulf Oceanic Society, took a proactive approach to reducing disturbance by developing a set of voluntary guidelines, or code of conduct, that operators in the area would follow to minimize the chances of disturbance to marine mammals. This involved actions such as staying an appropriate distance from seals, moving slowly, and avoiding pups when possible.
As the number of kayak day-trips to glaciers in the Kenai Fjords area increased, the researchers from the Alaska SeaLife Center also began to meet with kayaking tour companies from the area to present the tour-guides the guidelines from the voluntary code, and explain why these actions were important. Annual discussions, meetings and presentations kept everyone up to date on the latest information.
10 years later, the big question was “Were these voluntary actions effective?”
To answer this question, researchers at the Alaska SeaLife Center utilized data gathered from 2002-2012 as part of the harbor seal video-monitoring program. Using remote cameras, we counted the number of seals present at local glaciers, observed how tour boats were moving, and determined how the seals were responding to their presence.
Results of this long-term monitoring study indicated that there had been a substantial reduction in the number of incidents causing seals to enter the water.
As noted in a paper published in 2013 in the Journal of Wildlife Management, we found that from 2002 to 2005 there was a significant reduction in the number of vessel interactions as captains adopted the voluntary guidelines of slower approaches, maintaining greater distances and encouraging passengers to be quiet near floating seals. Similarly, in 2003 kayaks often caused disturbances, but after the 2006 trainings there was a 60% reduction in the number of disturbances! This study supported the importance of continued 2-way dialog between stakeholders, and the effectiveness of voluntary guidelines for ensuring sustainable tourism.
So where are we today?
The dedicated work of the Seward tour operators, and studies like the one conducted by the ASLC have helped shape recent changes to NOAA’s revised viewing guidelines for glacier ice seals–an excerpt is shown below.
For more information on the efforts by NOAA to continue working on this topic, and for a full copy of the guidelines click HERE.
Now back at the ASLC as a postdoctoral researcher, I participated in a workshop hosted by NOAA a few months ago on this topic. I was excited to hear that information is still being shared and updated through collaborative communication among stakeholders, and that studies like the one I participated in 7 years ago could have real impacts on local and statewide conservation efforts.
This story also reminds me that science is a tool for seeking answers, but it cannot be done in a vacuum. By bridging the gap between scientists and communities, we can hopefully continue to explore questions together in the future.
Written by: Dr. Amy Bishop