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Whale Watchers Need to Heed 100 Yard Rule

June 18, 2013

The owner and operator of an Alaskan charter vessel has been fined $5,000 for coming too close to a pod of humpback whales, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The violation was investigated by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and prosecuted by the Enforcement Section, NOAA’s Office of General Counsel.

Administrative Law Judge Susan L. Biro handed down her decision June 13, 2013, finding that Geoffrey A. Wilson, owner/operator of Alaska Yacht Charters, was reckless in approaching within 100 yards of a pod of humpback whales in his charter vessel, Alaska Story, on July 16, 2010.

“This decision is very timely because it’s the height of whale watching season,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Matthew Brown of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement’s Alaska Division, which investigated  the incident after witnesses aboard another vessel came forward with photographic evidence.  “Perhaps other vessel operators will be more aware of these necessary protective regulations as they strive to give their customers the best on-water experience possible.”

The decision by Judge Biro explains that Wilson had been preparing his passengers to fish for salmon near Parker Point on the western side of Admiralty Island when his first mate spotted a pod of humpback whales. The clients aboard Wilson’s vessel wanted to view the whales, so the Alaska Story pursued. The pod suddenly breached the surface of the water within 10 yards of the vessel. Two witnesses aboard the other viewing vessel testified that the Alaska Story essentially drove into the pod of six to eight humpback whales.

Approaching humpback whales within 100 yards is in violation of the ESA and MMPA, both of which prohibit the “take” of marine mammals. The definition of take in the ESA includes “to pursue” and in the MMPA it includes “to harass,” which could be any act of pursuit that has the potential to injure or disturb marine mammals.

Wilson and Alaska Yacht Charters have no previous violations. Although the judge ruled that the approach was not intentional, she noted that Wilson has many years of experience and is knowledgeable about both the regulations and the behavior of humpback whales.

Wilson and Alaska Yacht Charters have 30 days from the date of the decision to appeal the decision or pay the penalty in full.

For more information on this case, please read the judge’s decision.

For more information on recommended viewing guidelines for marine mammals, visit http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/education/viewing.htm

Story by Lesli Bales-Sherrod, communications specialist for NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement. 
To contact her, please call 301-427-8234 or email Lesli.Bales-Sherrod@noaa.gov.