Input Sought for Vessel Disturbance on Harbor Seals

NOAA seeks public input on potential conservation measures to protect harbor seals from vessel disturbance 

NOAA Fisheries has filed with the Federal Register an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to solicit public input on the issue of vessel interactions with harbor seals in glacial fjords in Alaska. Once published, a public comment period will be open for 60 days.

The agency is considering whether additional management measures may be necessary to preserve the important function and productivity of tidewater glacial habitat in Alaska, reduce disturbance of harbor seals by vessels, and minimize the change of long-term impacts to the population in Alaska. At this time, NOAA Fisheries is only seeking input and is not proposing to adopt any specific additional management measures.


Glacial fjords are highly productive and sensitive nursery areas for harbor seals. Although these areas occupy a small portion of the Alaskan coastline, they host the largest aggregations of seals in the state. Glacial habitats are believed to be productive sites for the population as a whole, relative to terrestrial sites. In some of these glacial sites, notably Glacier Bay and Aialik Bay, harbor seal populations have declined steeply. Many glacial sites in Alaska are now subject to tremendous rates of ice loss. Harbor seals relying on ice floes as a surface for hauling-out may be compromised by the prediction for continued, unprecedented ice loss from tidewater glaciers.


Vessel-based tourism in Alaska has been increasing rapidly over the last several decades. Since the 1980s, cruise ship visits to tidewater glaciers have increased substantially; annual passengers now exceed well over one million. Small and mid-size vessel traffic has also increased considerably. Currently, all cruise ships visiting Alaska enter one or more tidewater glacial fjords. Four of the five most heavily visited sites (Tracy Arm, Endicott Arm, College Fjord and Disenchantment Bay) have no specific management measures in place to protect harbor seals.

Due to a decline noted by Alaska Native seal hunters, in 2002 NOAA Fisheries entered into a study in collaboration with the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe to examine vessel-seal interactions in Disenchantment Bay. The study found that harbor seals reacted and altered their distribution in response to vessel traffic, and that the likelihood of harbor seals vacating the ice and entering the water increased significantly when cruise ships approached closer than 500 meters. These findings suggest that the current approach guideline of 100 yards may be inadequate to protect seals from disturbance and thus may not adequately protect these important glacially-associated habitats. 

NOAA Fisheries believes that the rapid rise in the occurrence of tour vessels in Alaska, in conjunction with vessels concentrating in glacial areas (up to five per day), represents a likely threat with a demonstrated potential to alter the natural behavior of seals during the critical periods of breeding and molting, which could then adversely affect the health and persistence of glacier-associated seal populations. Impacts include displacement, which can increase the risk of mother-pup separation during a dependent life stage when pups need maternal calories and protection in order to survive. Further, when seals are flushed from ice floes, pups are at risk from cold temperature stress with small increases in time submerged in water of 3-5 C°.

A major objective of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) is to protect species such that they continue to be "a significant functioning element in the ecosystem of which they are a part." In Section 2 of the MMPA, Congress finds that "in particular, 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." NOAA Fisheries' consideration of a variety of potential management measures promotes these objectives.

Conservation measures to protect harbor seals and highly productive habitat are already in place in some parts of Alaska. In response to a documented need for protective measures, Glacier Bay National Park in 1985 instituted regulations to limit disturbance to harbor seals and protect pupping habitat within its boundaries. NOAA Fisheries has been coordinating with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to plan additional research on the response of seals to vessel-related disturbance, which would be conducted in 2014.

NOAA Fisheries seeks public input as a preliminary step in the process of determining an appropriate course of management action. Comments are requested from the public on whether—and if so, what type of—conservation measures, regulations, or other measures may be appropriate to protect harbor seals from the potential effects of vessel activity in glacial habitats and minimize the chance of long-term impacts to the population in Alaska. Any recommendations received during the 60-day public comment period will be considered prior to any proposed rulemaking.

Send comments to: Jon Kurland, Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources Division, Attn: Ellen Sebastian, PO Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802-1668.

ou may submit comments, identified by [NOAA-NMFS-2011-0284] by any one of the following methods:

 Electronic Submissions: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal eRulemaking Portal at 

Fax: (907) 586-7557, Attn: Ellen Sebastian

 Mail: P. O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802

 Hand delivery to the Federal Building: 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, Juneau, AK