My Turn: Whale-watchers, clean up your act

  • Friday, August 26, 2016 1:04am
  • Opinion

The last few years, there has been a large increase in the number of whale-watching boats running out of Auke Bay. I’m not sure of the number, but there are too many.

The large number of whale-watching boats running back and forth to the whales (often around Shelter Island) has greatly impacted the area for sport fishermen trying to use the same area. Anglers using small skiffs typically complain that there is never any calm water even on flat calm days, just from whale-watch boat wakes. Anglers often get disgusted and don’t fish North Pass, North Shelter, Aaron Island, Barlow Point, South Shelter, Point Lena-Louisa, because of continuous whale-watching boat wakes. Also, studies have shown that boat engine noise can cause salmon to dive or move to avoid the noise.

Many whale-watch boat captains apparently have no respect for either the whales or other boaters using the same waters. The way I’ve seen whale watches conducted this summer, whale-watch guidelines are not being followed by many of the boats. Whales are often encircled, boats stay on the same whales continuously, and it looks like they see how close they can get rather that how close to 100 yards they can keep between themselves and the whales.

Grumbling about whale-watch boat behavior has become common among sport fishermen fishing the north end out of Auke Bay. One sport fishing boat actually had a whale watcher radio him and ask that he move so the whale watcher could get in on the whales better.

This spring while sport fishing I had a tall shiny aluminum whale watcher pass by us at cruise speed no more than 20 yards away. Such a wake turns everything in the boat upside down and shows zero respect. That same vessel was also involved in an incident which occurred Aug. 14, which prompted me to write this letter.

The last day of the Golden North Salmon Derby, we were fishing the reef at North Portland Island when a group of whales surfaced approximately 100 yards in front and to my starboard. Instantly several whale boats raced around North Portland causing big wakes and encircled the whales. One whale watcher stopped 50-60 feet broadside directly in front of me. I could have run into him — no, I could have gone to the left and lost all my fishing gear on the reef — no, I could only turn nearly around to my right to avoid the mess and took several big wakes from tall shiny aluminum whale-watch boats who were a bit late getting to the show. The whale-watch boats raced to get in on the whales — it looked like wolves in a feeding frenzy all trying to get the last bite.

After radioing the whale boat that ruined my day, I received several reports from other anglers that have had bad experiences with the whale boat fleet. Whale-watch boats essentially ruined my fishing Sunday afternoon at Portland Island, and it’s obvious they have made many other sport fishers unhappy as well.

First of all NOAA needs to do much more effective enforcement of whale watching regulations. Enforcement could employ onshore observers in favorite locations, onboard plants on whale-watch boats and/or unmarked boats to patrol.

As for respect for other boats on the water, whale watchers should be required to stay a minimum of 100 yards from all other boats on the water not engaged in whale watching, just like they are to stay at least 100 yards from marine mammals. Whale-watch boats should be required to display on both sides of vessels, the Tourism Best Management Practices phone number (586-6774) in large numbers, so complaints could be quickly reported.

Other options that should be considered include:

1) A limit on the number of whale watch boats operating locally.

2) Eliminate whale watching prior to 9 or 10 a.m. daily, so anglers can get out early and fish undisturbed in their favorite areas prior to whale boats showing up.

3) Eliminate whale-watching on weekends when most locals have a chance to go sport fishing.

• Mike Bethers is a lifelong sport fisherman, fishing the Juneau area nearly 50 years. Retired ADF&G biologist, past owner/operator of a local sport fishing/whale-watch business for 16 years.

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