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NOAA warns Alaskans and tourists not to feed the marine wildlife

Jillian RogersThe Arctic Sounder

Back away from the whale. And the seal. And the otter.

Otherwise, you could get a hefty fine. Or worse yet, get injured. Not to mention the damage done to those sea-dwellers by disturbing Alaska’s varied marine mammal population.

Incidents of humans sneaking too close to marine wildlife for that perfect photo or simply for a better look is nothing new, but it seems people just haven’t learned, despite an increase in close calls.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently distributed a release reminding locals and tourists alike to back off.

“We’ve had lots of reports of people feeding sea lions and even one of someone on a stand-up paddleboard getting very close to feeding whales,” said Juneau’s Jon Kurland, the Assistant Regional Administrator for the Protected Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries. The division works to protect the viability of protected species -- primarily marine mammals.

“Reports of this kind give us cause for concern,” Kurland said, adding that he couldn’t give specifics about the worst incidents because law enforcement was involved.

Occurrences can result in thousands of dollars worth of fines, according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The penalty depends on many things, Kurland said. Especially if the mammal is on the endangered species list or not. “It’s a serious issue, but it’s also an issue of human safety.”

One particular ongoing dilemma is in Petersburg, located in Southeast Alaska, involves people feeding a sea lion that has since become aggressive when it doesn’t get its human handouts.

Though this year hasn’t been the worst he’s seen, Kurland said there have been a lot of incidents both by commercial and recreational vessels. And especially in the Southeast because of commercial whale watching and increased cruise-ship traffic.

But these events happen all across the state and “it’s important to communicate the same message,” Kurland said. “Everybody likes wildlife and wants to get closer. It’s an issue for the marine mammals but also for the safety of the people.

“Wildlife viewing is part of what makes our corner of the planet so special and draws so many visitors to our state,” Kurland wrote in an editorial distributed by NOAA. “Living in the middle of wildlife habitat as we do in Alaska comes with responsibility -- the responsibility for each of us to dwell among these special creatures in a manner that minimizes harmful encounters between humans and wildlife, and to educate others on how to do that as well."

Kurland reminded readers of some of the highlights of the MMPA:

• Keep your distance: Stay at least 100 yards away from marine mammals at all times.
• Keep it short: Limit time spent observing an individual or one group to no more than 30 minutes.
• Don’t crowd or entrap: Do not encircle or trap marine mammals between boats, or boats and shore.
• Don’t cause distress: If a marine mammal approaches your vessel, put the engine in neutral and allow it to pass.
• Don’t chase: Pursuit of marine mammals is prohibited by federal law.
• Don’t feed: Offering food, discarding fish or fish waste, or any food item in the vicinity of a marine mammal is prohibited and can result in the animal aggressively seeking food from humans.
• Don’t touch or swim with the animals, they can behave unpredictably.

If you see a marine mammal in distress, don’t try to help the animal on your own, Kurland said. Instead, immediately report the injured or entangled animal by calling NOAA’s Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1-877-925-7773, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement 24-hour hotline at 1-800-853-1964, or the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16.

“By law, only trained responders are authorized to assist marine mammals in distress, and they have specialized tools for doing so.

“Put simply, if you cause a marine mammal to change its natural behavior, you may be violating federal law,” he said.

For more information, click here.

This article originally appeared in the Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.