Local whale watching businesses in Juneau have recently agreed to establish a committee that will look to address industry impacts as residents and city officials say the industry has a growing volume problem that may be negatively impacting Juneau’s harbors, waterfronts and the whales themselves.
In Juneau, whale watching boats face regulations, notably the federally mandated minimum safe distance from humpbacks whales of 100 yards. Whale watching boats are also forbidden from remaining at a fixed location watching a single whale or group of whales for more than 30 minutes, and have specific speed limits and traffic corridors that they operate in to reduce wake and disturbance.
However, though those regulations exist, according to Suzie Teerlink, a marine mammal specialist and NOAA’s Alaska coordinator for the Whale SENSE program, there are no current regulations about the number of boats that can be out on the water and watching those whales from 100 yards. That is a problem targeted by residents this season, city officials say.
“It’s one of the tourism issues that I have been getting a lot of citizen outreach on this summer, a lot of concerns about whale watching,” said City and Borough of Juneau Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs at a meeting last week.
According to Juneau Tourism Manager Alexandra Pierce, CBJ has limited control over the industry and the waters surrounding Juneau.
“The city doesn’t have very much jurisdictional authority over whale watching — we own harbors that a lot of the fleets docks at, but there are also private marinas,” she said. “We’ve been trying to help and facilitate, and do whatever we can to manage the issues associated with all the growth, and we try to impress upon the whale watch operators that we need to come up with some more stringent guidelines.”
Serene Hutchinson, general manager for Juneau Tours and Whale Watch and a member of the new committee, said many of the issues arising among residents this season such as the appearance of an influx in whale watching boats on the water aren’t just isolated to the whale watching industry, but are interwoven with a larger problem of rising cruise ship tourism in Juneau.
“Do I think we should consider limits? I do. But I think that overall, I don’t think that’s just the whale watching industry,” she said. “I am tooting the horn, that we not only need to limit how many cruise ships come a day, we need to require that if a cruise ship comes, they stay 10 hours or more.”
According to city data, the number of calls to the city’s tourism hotline on whale watching has remained steady between this year and last. However, the Assembly has continued to receive an increase in letters from several frustrated citizens this summer and “anecdotal feedback indicates increasing and potentially intensified friction between whale watching and local recreation,” Pierce said.
In 2015, NOAA developed the Whale SENSE Alaska program, which is a voluntary program dedicated to promoting safe and responsible whale watching practices, and provides recognition for companies who follow these guidelines.
According to Teerlink about 19 operators in Juneau participate in the program currently. From those companies, there are 66 vessels that are part of the Whale SENSE program out of the estimated 72 total commercial whale watching vessels that operate out of Auke Bay.
Teerlink said the actual impact of tourism and whale watching boats is difficult to say for certain, but noted recent studies do suggest there are indeed some reasons for concerns.
“We have seen from one study in this area that there is a behavioral response to vessels, especially an increasing number of vessels around whales,” She said. “So we do have a reason for concern, and to inquire further and try to understand if those behavioral impacts translate into physiological fitness and other factors that could impact the population.”
However, the data on hormone analysis has not yet definitively proved or disproved long-term effects on whales’ physiology.
Teerlink said she didn’t have a professional opinion to share about whether there should be limits on the number of boats, but noted “what I will say is that the whale watching industry in Juneau is perhaps the densest or even maybe the largest in the world, and there are times where there’s a lot of boats watching a relatively few numbers of whales, and that that does in and of itself present a challenge.”
She said she is hopeful for the new committee, and what ideas and solutions will come about, and how that might positively shift what the industry will look like in the future.
According to Pierce, the newly formed committee of operators in Juneau is scheduled to meet privately every two weeks before starting a public outreach effort later this summer. The first meeting was held last Thursday evening.
Pierce said she thinks the formation of the committee is a critical step in the right direction for operators and residents of Juneau.
“Private sector problems are often better met with private sector solutions — government only has blunt tools to regulate, and especially in a situation like this where we don’t have a lot of jurisdiction over what they do on the water,” she said. “So it’s an opportunity to evaluate the way that things operate, and come back with some better practices and policies. We can’t solve all the problems, but we can make our best effort to improve the industry practice, and its relationship with recreational voters and waterfront residents, and other members of the community who are concerned.”
Hutchinson said she isn’t opposed to future limits of whale watching boats in Juneau, but noted there’s more to the whale watching industry than what meets the eye and there are other factors at play.
“There’s a perception of just sudden growth — it’s not sudden growth — we’ve all been in business for many, many years,” she said. “Now, I will say that the fleet is bigger than ever — it’s not a lie, that’s a fact.”
Also, Hutchinson said, a number of cruise ships have begun coming to Juneau and berthing for a limited number of hours. She said that can create a problem for local tourism operators, as they receive a flood of people all trying to do the same activities in a short period of time. Activities like going to the Mendenhall Glacier, downtown tours, or whale watching.
She said that creates certain pockets of times where whale watching operators are all on the water at the same, short periods of time, which appears to be the source of many complaints from the public this season.
“I think the times that people have noticed the massive amount of boats on the water, that’s because of the cruise ship surges,” she said. “The size isn’t the problem — the problem that we’re dealing with is that we’re letting these enormous ships stay for such a short time. They’re letting you know, 3,500 people off the ship, who most of them want to go whale watching, but only have so many hours to do it.”
Hutchinson said she was “hopeful and excited” about the creation of the committee, and the operators’ commitments to addressing the changes and challenges of the industry head one.
“I’m actually really proud of our industry because as somebody who you know, is on the inside living and breathing it, we are really passionate about what we do. We’re passionate about Alaska,” she said. “We feel like if people saw how engaged we were, I think they might have a better sense of trust in our industry. We’re experiencing growing pains — but growing pains are good even though they hurt.”
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at email@example.com or (651) 528-1807.