Get access

Efficacy of voluntary mitigation in reducing harbor seal disturbance


  • Associate Editor: Bruce Thompson


Marine and coastal tourism has rapidly expanded worldwide in the past 2 decades, often occurring in once secluded habitats. In Alaska, tourism near tidewater glaciers has attracted millions of visitors and increased the presence of ships, tour vessels, and coastal development. Although sustainable tourism, resulting from balanced effects on wildlife and client satisfaction, is a goal of most tourism operators, it is not always achieved. Voluntary compliance with viewing guidelines and codes of conduct have been encouraged, but few assessments have the longitudinal scope to evaluate long-term changes in impacts on wildlife and the ability of vessel operators and kayak guides to sustain lower impact operating practices over time. This study assessed vessel and kayak visitation and resulting impacts on harbor seals in the Kenai Fjords National Park, southcentral Alaska. We obtained observations from 2002 to 2011, using remotely controlled video cameras located near Aialik and Pedersen Glaciers in the Kenai Fjords National Park. Overall, disturbance was associated with 5.1% of vessel sightings, 28% of vessel interactions (vessel observed within approx. 300 m of seals), 11.5% of kayak sightings, and 61% of kayak interactions. Results demonstrated that voluntary changes in operations significantly reduced vessel and kayak disturbance of seals by 60–80%. Even with prior establishment of operating guidelines, tour vessel captains were able to further reduce their effect on wildlife with more careful operations. Rapid growth of guided kayak excursions that occurred during this study caused greater disturbance to seals than motorized vessels but guide trainings helped reduce disturbances. Diminished impacts of motor vessels and kayakers persisted across years although effects of kayaks were less consistent than motor vessels, which reflected greater variability in inter-annual spatial use patterns by kayakers. Long-term monitoring, including assessments of wildlife responses to vessel and kayak operations, combined with 2-way communication with vessel operators and guides, enhanced the effectiveness of mitigation and facilitated adaptive adjustments to mitigation protocols over time. © 2013 The Wildlife Society.

Get access to the full text of this article