UPDATE: The Port of Anchorage says that one of its employees was at the tiller of the boat on which KTUU’s Rebecca Palsha was filming and no whales were disturbed. Port spokesman Jim Jager said a telephoto lens being used by Palsha made the whales look closer in the video than they were in reality. Port employees, he added, are trained in whale avoidance.
Palsha said she was just along for the ride on the boat while doing a story on the port, and the whales were “a nice additional surprise.” Since she wasn’t doing anything illegal, she added, she didn’t think it necessary to offer any context for the video. The boat wasn’t following the whales, she said; everyone just happened to be traveling in the same direction.
Officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are reviewing a Tweet by a local television personality featuring video of her motoring along in a skiff near endangered beluga whales off the Port of Anchorage.
Closely pursuing whales in a motorized watercraft is illegal, but in the video it is hard to tell how far the boat is from the iconic white whales of Cook Inlet.
“How far away is the animal in the video?” asked Casey Brennan, NOAA’s chief of enforcement in Maryland. “That’s going to be one of the things the officers are going to look at.”
The video was posted on Twitter by Rebecca Palsha, the NewsHours anchor at KTUU News.
“I’m just a girl on a boat watching some beluga whales chase down salmon,” she headlined the Aug. 24 video. The video captures 19 seconds of a ride behind belugas moving along the docks at the port of Anchorage.
At one point, the side of a large video camera can be seen in Palsha’s video.
“There’s one,” an unidentified voice says as a beluga surfaces. “Did you get that one?”
“Yup,” another voice answers. “Got that one.”
Six days after Palsha’s Tweet, KTUU did a story on the local belugas, but it did not use any footage shot at the port. Reporter Beth Verge’s story focused on NOAA’s use of a drone to try to get a better estimate on the Cook Inlet population.
“This really is a special population,” biologist Paul Wade told her. “They’re genetically isolated, they’re a long way from any other beluga population. And they’re swimming right past the city of Anchorage, right past the Port of Anchorage, just coming right through.”
The report contained video of NOAA scientists launching an inflatable boat at the downtown Anchorage boat ramp and of them floating in Knik Arm, but there was no footage of the whales Wade mentioned swimming past the Port of Anchorage.
At bottom of the story there was also a bold-faced warning saying this:
“Please note that NOAA’s survey was and is a federally permitted scientific study. Officials advise that people not fly their own drones or versions of a hexacopter over beluga whales or any other marine mammals.”
NOAA is equally or more concerned about boats approaching or chasing belugas.
“It is illegal to hunt or harass Cook Inlet beluga whales…,” a NOAA brochure says. “Help us prevent unlawful harassment, chasing, hunting, capturing or killing of these whales to
aid recovery of this declining population.”
“Small outboard motor driven watercraft, such as those commonly used for
recreational purposes in the Upper inlet, typically produces noise at much higher
frequencies (e.g., 6,300 Hz) and may therefore, have the highest potential to disturb
beluga whales,” a 2011 NOAA study of the animals concluded.
“Although interactions between small boats and beluga whales were uncommon in this area, whales did respond to close moving or approaching boats (up to several hundred meters away) with a change in behavior when boats passed. Behavioral responses varied with distance, speed, and boat bearing relative to the whales, and whales behavior prior to contact. The whales either maintained their course, but swam quickly away from stationary or pursuing boats or evaded boats and changed direction. In both cases, whales spent more time underwater while boats were nearby than before the encounters.”
The whales are protected by both the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The Alaska Regional Office of NOAA publishes a “General Marine Mammal Viewing Code of Conduct” for watching whales and other marine mammals.
“Remain at least 100 yards from marine mammals,” it says. “Whales should not be encircled or trapped between boats, or boats and shore.”
Someone familiar with marine mammals in Cook Inlet contacted craigmedred.news about the Palsha video asking “Is this legal?”
Emailed that question, Allyson Rogers, the local spokeswoman for NOAA, messaged that “it is NOAA policy not to comment on potential or ongoing investigations. Cook Inlet beluga whales, among other species, are protected by the ESA. All marine mammals, including belugas, are protected by the MMPA. Both of these federal laws are enforced by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.”
Further efforts to find out whether following belugas as pictured in the video is acceptable resulted in a telephone call from Brennan. Whether the action shown in the video is legal or not depends on how far the whales in question were from the whale watchers, he said, but in general following belugas around Cook Inlet in a boat is frowned upon.
As Wade noted, the whales are an isolated and genetically distinct population that once numbered about 1,300 only to be severely reduced by subsistence hunting in the mid- to late-1990s, according to NOAA. The population now numbers somewhere between slightly less than 300 and slightly more than 400.
Once subsistence hunts were restricted, biologists expected the population to bounce back quickly as most wildlife populations do. But despite a token harvest of only five whales between 1999 and 2006, the population remained depressed.
All hunting was ended in 2006, and the species was listed as endangered two years later. Still, the population did not recover. A 2016 census estimated there were only 328 of the white whales in the upper Inlet that year, the agency reported
Scientists are hoping for more from the new census now underway.
Brennan said many people are unfamiliar with marine-mammal-protection regulations or don’t take them seriously. It is not unusual, he added, to encounter social media posts that display people behaving badly – accidentally or intentionally – around marine mammals.
In the video, the newspaper reported, the “man walks up to a sleeping monk seal on Poipu Beach at night, and strokes it with his hand. The startled seal quickly turns toward him, and he runs away.”
The man then panned his camera to a sign urging beachgoers to stay away from the seals.
“Violations are usually the result of things like tourists wanting to get a good, close picture with a seal or a thrill-seeker trying to get a rush,” Honolulu’s NOAA Fisheries wildlife management coordinator, Adam Kurtz, said in a statement. “But it’s really frustrating when you see people harass these animals.”
Hawaii has persistent problems with marine-mammal harassment.
Last year, two California men were fined $750 each by NOAA for picking up a green sea turtle and playing with it.
“The men identified as Austin Lambert and Conner Lambert on social media, posted a photo of themselves with one holding the green sea turtle, and the other throwing hand gestures at the photographer,” Reptiles Magazine later reported. “The caption to the photo read, ‘Missing the time we risked a $20,000 fine to catch a sea turtle with our bare hands.'”
NOAA Fisheries recommends anyone wanting to watch whales in the Anchorage area do so from the shore. From mid-August through October, the whales are regularly spotted in the Port of Anchorage and along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail from downtown to Point Woronzoff.
They can also be seen in many places along the Seward Highway from the Potter Section House southeast of Potter Marsh to the Placer River crossing southeast of Girdwood. Beluga Point about 23 miles from downtown on the Seward is so named for a reason.
“…The white whales are often spotted from this location as they make their way up and down the Inlet. Interpretive signs and sculpted belugas are also featured at this point,” according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
“This rocky promontory was once a site used by Native hunters. Take a stroll along the short pathways along this stony crag and listen to the wind and waves – it’s not hard to imagine skin-clad hunters with bone-tipped harpoons using this point to scan for whales.”
Some Natives hunters remain hopeful the population can be restored to a level that allows hunting. The MMPA contains a special provision allowing for Native hunting of whales, seals, sea lions, otters and other marine mammals to continue where population numbers allow.