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Rules change for Alaska Native sea otter pelt use

Posted: November 22, 2013 - 12:06am

PETERSBURG — Federal wildlife officials have approved new guidelines for using sea otter hides in clothes and handicrafts by Alaska Natives.

The guidelines aim to clarify how Alaska Native artisans can use pelts and avoid running afoul of federal law regulating the take of the protected marine mammals.

The change clarifies how hides under federal law must be “significantly altered” to be considered authentic Native handicrafts or clothing that can be sold to non-natives, KFSK-radio reported.

The changes do not change requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, said Andrea Medeiros, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“These are guidelines and they are to help the native artisans to understand what exactly qualifies as significantly altered,” Medeiros said.

Only coastal Native Alaskans can hunt the protected species.

A pelt under the guidelines is considered “significantly altered” when it’s made into a craft or clothing and not recognizable as a whole hide.

Lee Kadinger, chief operating officer of Sealaska Heritage Institute, which teaches skin sewing classes, said the new wording is appreciated but needs adjustment.

The “significantly altered” term has caused significant harm to artisans, he said. Clarifying the term, he said, will help continue a tradition practiced since time immemorial without fear of prosecution.

“Protecting this inherent cultural right is not only good public policy, but it supports and preserves cultural diversity and respects the traditions and lifestyles of Alaska Native people,” he said.

The new definition is similar to language endorsed last year by the Alaska Federation of Natives. However, it includes a line requiring that an otter skin be changed enough so that the skin or just a piece of the hide cannot be easily converted back to an unaltered hide.

Kadinger said the Sealaska Heritage Institute is concerned over the phrase “piece of hide” because it would be hard to prevent someone from cutting a piece of fur from finished clothing or handicrafts.

The institute, he said, will work with the agency to understand how they will define “piece of hide” that could be converted back to an unaltered hide.

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