Ray Sensmeier propped the .223-caliber rifle on the bow of the skiff and took aim at a plump harbor seal splayed out on a cradle of blue ice. The Tlingit Indian steadied his finger...

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YAKUTAT, Alaska — Ray Sensmeier propped the .223-caliber rifle on the bow of the skiff and took aim at a plump harbor seal splayed out on a cradle of blue ice.

The Tlingit Indian steadied his finger on the trigger. Icebergs the size of garage doors scraped the boat’s hull. Sensmeier cursed.

Behind his prey, drifting perilously into his line of fire, was a gleaming white cruise ship, its 1,500 passengers and crew suddenly the biggest city for hundreds of miles. Unable to safely take his shot, Sensmeier jerked the barrel away, disgusted.

Even in one of Southeast Alaska’s most remote corners, where natives have been hunting seals for at least 1,000 years, it’s hard to escape the presence of the cruise-ship industry.

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The industry has exploded in Alaska in the past decade, with more than 500 cruises a summer now carting 750,000 people or more north from Seattle, San Francisco and Vancouver, B.C. — most to a region with a combined population of roughly 60,000. Sailings from Seattle, which had virtually no cruise business three years ago, are expected to increase 50 percent next year.

The industry’s influence on the string of islands, bays and fjords that make up Alaska’s coastal logging and fishing villages is so enormous that some communities are at war with themselves over whether cruises are their salvation — or a cause for alarm.

Cruise ships generate $595 million a year in spending in Alaska, according to industry reports. The industry contributes to local park and downtown-renewal projects throughout Alaska and is fueling a shore-side boom in everything from whitewater rafting to rock climbing.

Earlier this year, Whittier and Haines both repealed cruise-ship taxes in a desperate attempt to lure back cruises that had abandoned them for other Alaskan ports. Disembarking passengers have sparked such an economic boom in Ketchikan, which lost its timber mill in 1997, that the community of 14,000 now sports nearly 40 jewelry stores.

But Juneau residents complain of being bombarded by helicopters ferrying cruise passengers on “flightseeing” day tours. Even cruise officials once expressed fear that Juneau’s downtown had so many tourists it threatened to detract from the tourists’ experience.

And anti-cruise ship activists continue to fight back. They are pushing a statewide ballot initiative to levy a $50-per-head tax on passengers.

At its core, Alaska’s cruise-ship conflict comes down to whether or not residents believe an industry that showcases their state’s untamed beauty will damage it.

The industry has labored under a public-relations hangover since the late 1990s, when two cruise lines paid millions of dollars in penalties after illegally dumping waste or oily residue in Alaskan waters. Although the ships are exempt from the Clean Water Act, investigators in 2000 found that even treated discharges sometimes contained 10,000 times more bacteria than the Coast Guard normally allowed.

The state since has developed the nation’s strictest cruise-ship-pollution laws.

But other problems continue. Alaska’s U.S. Attorney’s office is still investigating how a pregnant humpback whale was crushed to death two years ago in a popular cruise-ship route near Glacier Bay National Park. Biologists determined another dead humpback found near Yakutat in May was likely killed by a ship.

The industry insists it has cleaned up — a claim state regulators generally back. A new statewide tax, industry and top politicians argue, could drive away passengers and spell disaster for towns that rely on them.

Perhaps no place highlights Alaskans’ ambivalence toward cruise ships better than Yakutat, about half of whose 800 residents are native Tlingits. And the ships don’t even dock here.

Here, the massive ships draw resentment and scorn, prompted by fear that they could wreak havoc on a sensitive environment and traditional way of life. That the town largely misses out on the prosperity the ships bring elsewhere only makes the conflict more acute.

Guarding a fragile environment

Ray Sensmeier fires a final killing shot at a harbor seal that had been floating on an iceberg in Disenchantment Bay. “It never used to be like this,” Sensmeier says of the declining numbers of seals. Some blame cruise ships.

It doesn’t take binoculars to see why Yakutat Bay, 225 miles northwest of Juneau, has worked its way onto cruise-ship itineraries.

With towering 18,008-foot Mount St. Elias rising in the background, it’s home to beluga whales and massive halibut and lined with soft sand beaches. The 22-mile-long Situk River draws more anglers than any stream in the sprawling Tongass National Forest.

The gulf squeezes into narrower Disenchantment Bay, where floating ice serves as deck chairs for hundreds of harbor seals. The fresh water funnels down snow-capped peaks in the continent’s longest tidewater glacier.

As the popularity of Alaskan cruises boomed, ships and lines unable to contract with the federal government to visit Glacier Bay increasingly found their way here. More than 150 ships visit each summer. Passengers take in porpoises, flocks of seabirds and the advancing blue-white tongue of Hubbard Glacier, which is collapsing so swiftly it’s been dubbed “the galloping glacier.”

They bypass Yakutat proper, a community with barely 60 miles of roads in a borough of 4 million acres — a place so isolated some residents wear whistles to ward off Alaskan brown bears while working outdoors.

But for some, the ships are still too close.

A cruise ship looms offshore of Yakutat, Alaska, whose miles of wide, sandy beaches have attracted a growing number of surfers — and a board shop in town.

On a recent afternoon, Yakutat Borough Assemblyman Dave Stone stood at a bridge overlooking the Situk practicing what he called “garbage fishing.” He was catching pink salmon using a broken tree branch, fishing line and a hook he found by the side of the road, and a shiny granola bar wrapper as a lure.

“I’m definitely anti-cruise ship,” Stone said. “I came here in 1978 because of what we have here. We’d like to keep it the way it’s always been.”

Tough economic times are typically “the way it’s always been.”

Yakutat has a fish-processing plant. A handful of lodges and charter boats cater to sport fishermen. Residents catch fish or hunt moose to supplement meals. Most cut their own wood. Native Tlingits (pronounced “Klink-it”) harvest clams and cockles, seaweed and seagull eggs.

The bulk of its economy is commercial fishing, and prices remain in a tailspin.

“Last year, fishermen brought in $850,000 gillnetting and trolling,” said Steve Henry, the city and borough manager. “The year before, it was more like $1.5 million. The year before that, it was even higher.”

City officials have been trying to market Yakutat Bay salmon as a premium product caught in Alaska’s most unsoiled waters. They hope to fetch premium prices, just like Copper River salmon.

And they fear that an accident or waste dumping — legal or illegal — could mar those plans.

After Royal Caribbean was ordered to pay the state $6.5 million for “deliberate and routine midnight dumping” into the fragile Inside Passage waters off Southeast Alaska, community leaders discussed how vulnerable their region was.

“We swim and fish here,” Stone said. “And we have to risk them dumping? Why should we?”

Cruise officials maintain the fear is unwarranted. More than half the nearly 40 ships operating in Southeast Alaska now have wastewater systems that treat water to levels near that of drinking water, they said. The discharges are so clean the Coast Guard allows them to discharge anywhere.

Those that don’t have the new systems are required to dump at least three miles from shore.

“The net effect of all of that is, I believe, that we have achieved some very high standards of environmental protection in Alaska,” said John Hansen, with the Northwest Cruise Ship Association.

But just last year, one of Holland America’s ships, equipped with the advanced wastewater-treatment system, still discharged a foamy stream of partially treated wastewater into the harbor outside Juneau.

“The industry changed marginally the way it does business,” said Juneau attorney Joe Geldhof, author of the ballot initiative. “But the industry has not done much to watch all of their ships, all of the time.”

Violations feed mistrust

Cruise passengers scale an on-board climbing wall as a ship passes through Yakutat Bay, heading in for a view of Hubbard Glacier, called “the galloping glacier” because of its rapid collapse.

Only after waste-dumping controversies gave opponents ammunition did the cruise industry’s growth become a full-blown brawl in Alaska.

Between 1993 and 1998, the General Accounting Office, Congress’ investigative arm, documented 87 cases of illegal dumping by cruise ships across the country — including several in Alaska. The cases prompted federal investigations and millions of dollars in fines, and led Alaska to overhaul its environmental monitoring.

Today, the state maintains its regulations are working. Discharge, as well as clean-air infractions, have dropped to a fraction of what they were just two years ago.

But skeptics remain suspicious.

In 2001, Norwegian Cruise Lines pled guilty to falsifying records to cover up illegal dumping. Earlier this year, Norwegian admitted that a ship accidentally dumped 40,000 gallons of wastewater into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Just last month, Holland America’s parent company was hauled into court in Miami, accused of filing false and misleading statements about how it was complying with terms of a plea agreement for concealing waste dumping.

This spring, the Crystal Harmony, a ship that regularly travels to Alaska, was banned from a California port after breaking a written promise and dumping 36,000 gallons of sewage and bilge water into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary — and neglecting to report it for months. Just last week, the California Environmental Protection Agency issued a 99-page report concluding that cruise-ship wastewater discharges and air emissions are significant sources of pollution that the state doesn’t — but should — regulate.

John Shively, spokesman for Holland America, understands the position the new incidents put his industry in.

“The oil industry has never recovered from the Exxon Valdez spill,” he said. “There are going to be problems and mistakes, but we need to try to explain to people that we’re doing a very good job virtually every day.”

Shively said Alaskans believe him: “What polling we’ve done shows that 80 percent of them would recommend a cruise to family members.”

Capitalizing on the crowds

Listening at a recent meeting of local officials and cruise-industry representatives, Yakutat Borough Assemblyman Dave Stone, front left corner, and Steve Henry, far left in second row, were part of a good-sized crowd.

Cruise ships are transforming Southeast Alaska’s sputtering economy, and opening to tourism untrammeled lands that otherwise might have remained virtually unknown.

Cruise lines increasingly invest in on-ground services, such as hotels and renovated rail lines, or contract with local outfitters to steer passengers their way.

“Look at the economics of cruising: You’re in a four- or five-star hotel that gets you to a lot of places,” said Shively. “You only unpack once. If you tried to do a cruise itinerary by air and ground, you couldn’t touch what you can get it for in a cruise ship.”

Today, eight major cruise lines offer trips to Alaska, typically hitting three ports of call and stopping to view at last one of the state’s spectacular tidewater glaciers in a weeklong tour.

Cruise ships stopped in Ketchikan, for example, 538 times last year. Ten years ago, the number was 421. Passenger growth is even greater. In 1993, Ketchikan saw 322,000 cruise-ship passengers. This season, it expects 757,000.

Once there, visitors take floatplanes to Misty Fjords National Monument to watch bears feed on salmon. They rent kayaks and go hiking, see native dance performances or visit a collection of totem poles. And they shop: Ketchikan, an isolated island, has seen retail sales jump from $21 million a decade ago to $69 million last year.

“The growth has been very fast, but it came at a time when the community desperately needed it,” said Patti Mackey, executive director of the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau.

The industry’s allure is so tempting that even the state’s largest Tlingit community, in the town of Hoonah 40 miles from Juneau, recently worked out a deal to draw cruise ships with what tribal officials describe as a “journey-through-time tour that will walk them through the history of Tlingit culture and lifestyle and the history of subsistence.”

But tiny Yakutat receives few direct benefits from that boom. And over the years, the city has spent tens of thousands of dollars sending out emergency crews when a cruise passenger needed to be evacuated.

So Yakutat took on Goliath with a novel approach: Approving a $1.50-per-passenger tax, even though the ships don’t actually stop in town. They were hoping to use the money for environmental monitoring and to recoup the cost of medical services. To date, it would have raised more than $700,000 — big bucks for a community with a $2 million annual budget.

They offered to rescind the tax if the cruise lines would instead buy and market local fish — an idea industry officials said was unfeasible.

Instead, ships have refused to pay the tax. And the industry, which contributes millions of dollars in campaign donations, fought back politically, fearing the precedent. Last fall, at the behest of industry lobbyists, U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, inserted language into a maritime-security act prohibiting local communities from taxing cruise ships.

Ships seem to scare seals

A Tlingit skiff follows in the wake of a cruise ship, joining the flow of ice out of Disenchantment Bay.

In the meantime, an even more charged issue has emerged: the fate of harbor seals in Yakutat Bay.

Seals have long been central to the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe’s culture, and tribal members here hunt and kill up to 400 a year — more than any other Alaskan community. They eat the meat, liver and heart, and harvest the oil. They stretch the fur and use it for moccasins or vests or to make drumheads. They share the catch at intertribal potlatches.

On a cloudless day, a porpoise arcs in and out of the water as Tlingit hunter Rudy Pavlik motors a skiff past a glob of ice the precise shape of a juniper in Disenchantment Bay.

“It’s crazy. No seals,” he said. Sensmeier, his fellow hunter, shot back, “It never used to be like this.”

In the past decade, tribal elders say they noticed fewer of the pear-shaped mammals. They fear the massive ships — some are 965 feet long — were driving seals, particularly those nursing their pups during early summer, from the bay.

In nearby Glacier Bay, the National Park Service closes a narrow ice-choked pupping ground during those months.

The tribe persuaded the cruise industry to help pay for National Marine Fisheries Service scientists to board boats and document seal reactions in the bay. Initial observations during the first year of a three-year study suggested seals were 25 times more likely to disappear into the water when a ship came within 100 meters of them.

But it’s still not clear whether the seals simply slip into the water and return, or whether they are being driven away for good. While scientists have documented a significant decline in seals in the Gulf of Alaska, they can’t say for certain whether their numbers have dropped in the bay.

“As a biologist, I need proof, but at first glance there appears to be something going on,” said Bill Lucy, a fisheries scientist with Yakutat’s salmon board.

The tribe hopes to set up seal-monitoring stations and is negotiating a new route inside the bay. But Tom Dow, spokesman for Princess Cruises, said that while the industry is negotiating some changes to its activities near the glacier, it has rejected requests to permanently cap the number of ships entering the bay.

“There is a general feeling among scientists that disturbing seal pups is a bad thing and should be avoided,” he said. “But there’s still no real hard evidence that seals are leaving the ice because of the ships.”

‘Isolationist attitude’

Ramona Anderstrom helps her mother, Maria Shodda, present a donation to the Tlingit dance troupe during the recent summer festival, Fairweather Day, in Yakutat. About half of Yakutat’s 800 residents are Tlingits.

Even in Yakutat, not everyone views cruise ships with antagonism.

On another sunny day, Mark Sappington reached into a slop bucket of fish heads and slid one onto a heavy line and tossed it into the drink.

“You have to understand, people here have a bit of an isolationist attitude,” Sappington said.

Sappington runs a charter-boat service and makes a living finding salmon and halibut for tourists. Yet while he shares the seas with the big white ghosts — and worries about spills or dumping — he finds them almost comforting.

Cruises let people see the beauty he sees, Sappington said.

He estimated that half of Yakutat’s residents had never seen the Hubbard Glacier, only visible by air or boat: “People here are too busy living their lives.”

He hauled up his line and removed an unwanted shark.

“I actually like them,” he said of cruise ships, as another one passed before him.

“I’ve had clients who first found this place — and me — after coming through here on a cruise.”

Craig Welch: cwelch@seattletimes.com

Mark Harrison: mharrison@seattletimes.com