Wildlife Wednesday talk highlights marine mammal protection

Alaska Wildlife Alliance’s Wildlife Wednesdays is back for its third season of weekly presentations until April, and coming up Oct. 17 are presentations on the Marine Mammal Protection Act and enforcement.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To commemorate the ground-breaking federal legislation, the Oct. 17 Wildlife Wednesday event will feature two speakers intimately familiar with the MMPA.

Kate Savage, a marine mammal specialist and veterinarian for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, will be presenting a comprehensive overview of the MMPA. Ron Antaya, a supervisory criminal investigator for NOAA, will talk about the enforcement components of the legislation.

Savage said the MMPA was innovative, in 1972, when it was signed into law.

“One thing it did was it took away the onus of managing a species,” Savage said. “The responsibility of managing marine mammals was taken from the management to the individual.”

She explained how the act was basically established to increase an awareness of marine mammals, their habitat and human behaviors that affect them. The human component is where Antaya’s role comes in.

Antaya said that he was a kid when the act was passed, and with it came a surplus of commercials highlighting dolphin-safe tuna.

“At (the time the act was created) there was a heightened sense of concern over marine mammals, and the trade of worldwide marine mammal parts,” Antaya said. “In addition they wanted to enact some protection of marine mammals.”

As Southeast Alaska has a dependency and proximity to the marine environment, the MMPA, Antaya said, affects all residents.

“I’m going to present to (the public), ‘Here’s the things you can do; here’s what you can’t’,” Antaya said.

He said that the MMPA makes it illegal to “take” a marine mammal, and he will be explaining at the Wildlife Wednesday talk just what that means. To “take” a mammal, Antaya said, is “Further defined as harass, hunt, capture, collect, or kill, or to attempt. It’s an act of pursuit, torment or annoyance.”

He said there are two levels to this “take” component of the MMPA. One is regarding the potential to injure a marine mammal, and one covers the potential to cause a disruption of the mammals’ normal behavior patterns. This becomes pertinent to Southeast Alaska residents as a lot of their economy is derived from fishing or tourism. If a whale watching or personal vessel is getting close enough to feeding whales that the vessel may be violating the MMPA, then the public, Antaya said, has a right to be educated about what they can do to both prevent their own disruption and to prevent others from doing so.

“Mammals really depend on ephemeral prey availability,” Savage said. “Things are really seasonal around here. They get these bursts of energy that are very important for survival. You get someone that crowds or prohibits them from access, and that can be a problem.”

Savage said that a number of instrumental amendments have been made to the MMPA.

“It’s really quite amazing,” Savage said. “There’s litigation, all these things that had to be put in to place so that mortality can be reduced. All those changes were incorporated into the MMPA.”

Antaya added that there are exceptions to the “take” regulations in the MMPA that are important for Southeast Alaska residents to understand.

“Alaska Natives are allowed to take marine mammals for subsistence purposes,” Antaya said, and to use mammals to make “authentic Native handicrafts, so long as the take is accomplished in a non-wasteful manner.”

Another exception he said is important for local residents is that the act recognized that there are inevitable inadvertent “takes” in the commercial fishing business, specifically the drift gill net fishery.

“It’s an authorization for that gill netter to be involved with a non-lethal, unintentional and incidental take,” Antaya said. “The reason this is authorized is that basically you’ve got a salmon fisherman that’s fishing and at the same time a harbor seal that’s fishing.”

But, he said, if the “take” results with a dead marine mammal, than the fisherman is required to report it.

“Something that’s near and dear to me is neck entanglements with pinnipeds,” Savage said.

Pinnipeds are semi-aquatic marine mammals, like walruses, sea lions and seals. Savage said packing straps are big offenders.

“They get into the marine environment and get on to the necks of these animals,” Savage said. “We’re working to decrease the incidents of that, but it’s a challenge.”

“We don’t want to get called in after an animal is harmed,” Antaya added. “We would prefer to prevent by way of education and outreach.”

Antaya explained how the MMPA presentation is important for everyone who lives in the region, whether they fish, whale watch or simply drive along ocean-side roads.

“We’re doing this to heighten the sense of awareness of the communities, because the communities in Southeast Alaska are affected by the act,” Antaya said. “Whether you know it or not, you are (affected); really and truly.”

Savage said the MMPA deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

“It’s pretty cool,” Savage said. “I have to say it really makes me proud of what’s possible in this country.”

The Marine Mammal Preservation Act presentation will be at 7 p.m. on Oct. 17 in the Glacier View room at the University of Alaska Southeast. Brown said the Wildlife Wednesday presentations usually take place in this location but are occasionally held at the Egan Lecture Hall. She said they are usually around an hour, and the Juneau chapter of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance provides homemade treats.

Tina Brown, the president of AWA, explained that the nonprofit’s mission is to protect and preserve the state’s wildlife.

“We work to achieve and maintain a balanced ecosystem in Alaska,” Brown said.

One that is “Managed with the use of sound science to preserve wildlife for present and future generations.” Brown also said the AWA is the only state organization that advocates solely for Alaska wildlife.

Previous Wildlife Wednesday presentations have included the Dolly Varden trout predator control program, delivered by Bob Armstrong, and a wildlife photography show by Juneau Empire photographer Michael Penn.

For more information on the presentation series, visit www.akwildlife.org, or call Brown at 523-5402.

• Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She may be reached at amanda.compton@capweek.com.



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