The U.S. regularly conducts research on the impacts of vessels on marine mammals directly with government scientists, in collaboration with University scientists, and by providing funding, through grants, to support research of independent scientists and graduate students. This research occurs through regular assessments of marine mammal population abundance and trends, studies on the impacts of human activities on marine mammals, and directed research on the impacts of whale watching activities. This information is used to assess the potential effects of ecotourism activities, including whale watching, on those populations. The U.S. uses existing and ongoing research efforts to inform management of whale watching activities, including regional voluntary viewing guidelines and regulations (described in Management).
The U.S. conducts population abundance and distribution surveys throughout its waters, assessing the health of cetacean populations, and managing human-caused injury and mortality. As described in section 2.3, NMFS develops annual Stock Assessment Reports (SAR) for cetaceans that occur in U.S. waters. These annual reports assist in assessing the status of stocks. Further, as described in Research, the U.S. regularly collaborates with independent scientists, increasing the chance that the U.S. is able to detect adverse impacts on populations through current and ongoing research studies. This information is used, among other things, to evaluate the progress of U.S. management of human interactions with marine mammals, including vessel interactions (through viewing guidelines and/or regulations).
NMFS makes all SARs and the information from its research and monitoring programs easily accessible to the public online at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/national/marine-mammal-protection/marine-mammal-stock-assessments.
NMFS maintains websites like https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/marine-life-viewing-guidelines/overview dedicated to providing information on whale watching in the region, the status of species most popular to the whale watching industry, and information on viewing guidelines and regulations.
The U.S. works regularly with the whale watching industry to assist in the development of a sustainable industry that operates in a manner that is not detrimental to marine mammals. For example, NOAA Fisheries and Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans collaborated with commercial whale watch companies and conservation groups to establish the “Be Whale Wise” campaign to foster responsible viewing of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest. The campaign took on greater importance once regulations were promulgated in 2011 that established a 200-yard approach restriction to killer whales.
In addition, the NMFS collaborated with partners in the U.S. Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Dolphin Ecology Project, and commercial tour operators to launch the “Dolphin SMART” program in 2007. This program is a voluntary recognition and education program encouraging responsible viewing by commercial businesses operating in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and portions of the Gulf of Mexico. By becoming a “Dolphin SMART” operator and maintaining participation, businesses gain a competitive edge by offering customers an enhanced tour, while demonstrating their commitment to dolphin conservation. The “Dolphin SMART” program was so successful in Florida, NMFS launched “Dolphin SMART-Hawaii” in 2011.
NMFS also partnered with Whale and Dolphin Conservation and NOAA Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to develop a program similar to Dolphin SMART called “Whale SENSE” to engage the whale watching industry and foster guideline compliance when viewing humpback, fin, minke, and sei whales in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and New England. Since its launch in 2009, the Whale SENSE program has gained momentum and credibility within the whale watching industry, expanding in the U.S. and gaining international recognition. The program was expanded to Alaska in 2015.
Businesses participating in the “Dolphin SMART” and “Whale SENSE” programs are provided with outreach materials for their customers, including educational brochures, posters, and a flag and/or sticker decal to display on their vessels and identify themselves as participants in the program.
NMFS prohibits viewing of marine mammals in a manner that can cause “harassment” of the animal, including feeding or attempting to feed an animal. Whale watching in the U.S. is managed mainly through viewing guidelines or regulations that include region-specific information for local species and habitats. These guidelines or regulations can be found online at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/marine-life-viewing-guidelines#guidelines-&- distances .
NMFS develops and provides multiple training and education tools for industry practitioners and the public, include brochures, posters, and websites. These viewing guidelines or regulations, which vary by region and species, promote a “Code of Conduct” that recommends approach distances for vessels and aircraft, methods for vessel and aircraft approach, speed limits for vessels in areas with high numbers of cetaceans, advises against swimming with marine mammals in the wild, prohibits feeding marine mammals in the wild, and recommends maximum viewing time limits. In addition, NMFS and the NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program have developed a broad-based “Ocean Etiquette” program to promote ocean stewardship by providing the public with guidance on minimizing impacts to marine life and habitats, as well as other initiatives such as the “Dolphin SMART” and “Whale SENSE” programs discussed in Development.
Unmanned aircraft systems – also known as model aircraft or drones - are rapidly emerging as a new way to obtain unique views of wildlife and natural landscapes, and whale watch operators are beginning to incorporate this technology into their activities. However, unmanned aircraft systems can be disruptive to both people and animals if not used safely, appropriately, or responsibly. Scientists and wildlife managers are concerned that acute or chronic disturbances of wildlife can significantly impact the animals’ health and fitness by disrupting migratory patterns, breeding, feeding, and sheltering. As a result, NMFS developed guidance when flying unmanned aircraft systems, which is available online at https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/marine-life-viewing-guidelines#guidelines-&-distances. Additionally, NMFS recently presented an overview of known impacts of unmanned aircraft systems on cetaceans to the 2016 scientific committee meeting.
While the majority of whale watching in the U.S. is managed through voluntary guidelines, whale watching is managed under MMPA and regulations specifically for humpback whales in Alaska and Hawaii, endangered North Atlantic right whales, and endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Regulations for humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska prohibit, with some exceptions, vessels from approaching within 100 yards (300 feet or 91.4 m) of any humpback whale, including placing a vessel in the path of an oncoming humpback whale so that the whale surfaces within 100 yards (300 feet or 91.4 meters) of the vessel. It is also prohibited to disrupt the normal behavior or prior activity of a whale by any other act or omission. In Alaska, the regulations also require vessels to operate at a slow, safe speed when near a humpback whale. In Hawaii, aircraft are also prohibited within 333 yards (1,000 feet or 308.4 m) of any humpback whale. In Alaska, the U.S. National Park Service has additional regulations that prohibit the operation of a vessel within one-quarter nautical mile of a humpback whale and limits the speed of cruise ships to 13 knots in Glacier Bay National Park. Glacier Bay National Park also limits the number of cruise ships allowed in parts of the park when humpback whales are present.
The critically endangered status of North Atlantic right whales has prompted regulations that prohibit anyone from approaching (including by interception) within 500 yards (1,500 feet or 460 m) of a right whale by vessel, aircraft, or any other means. When within 500 yards (1,500 feet or 460 m) of a right whale, a vessel must steer a course away from the right whale and immediately leave the area at a slow safe speed, and any aircraft must take a course away from the right whale and immediately leave the area at a constant airspeed. The effects of vessels, including physical interference and sound, are potential contributing factors in the decline of the endangered Southern Resident killer whale population in the Pacific Northwest. NMFS issued regulations to protect the whales that prohibit vessels from approaching killer whales in the Pacific Northwest closer than 200 yards (600 feet or 183 m), intercepting the whales, or positioning vessels in their path. The regulations apply to all types of boats, including motor boats, sailboats, and kayaks.
In addition, broader regulations under the MMPA prohibit anyone from engaging in “the negligent or intentional operation of an aircraft or vessel, or the doing of any other negligent or intentional act which results in disturbing or molesting a marine mammal; and feeding or attempting to feed a marine mammal in the wild.”
This section outlines U.S. domestic efforts related to whale watching.