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Opposition to selling otter pelts to non-Natives

Posted: February 6, 2012 - 1:02am
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Co-chairs of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Eric Reige, R-Chickaloon, left, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, listen to Dr. Rosita Worl, representing the Alaska Federation of Natives talk about her concerns on HJR 26, dealing with sea otter management. Dr. Worl agreed growth of the sea otter population is affecting subsistance and commercial fisheries but does not want to see the sale of raw otter pelts outside of the native community.  Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Co-chairs of the House Resources Committee, Rep. Eric Reige, R-Chickaloon, left, and Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, listen to Dr. Rosita Worl, representing the Alaska Federation of Natives talk about her concerns on HJR 26, dealing with sea otter management. Dr. Worl agreed growth of the sea otter population is affecting subsistance and commercial fisheries but does not want to see the sale of raw otter pelts outside of the native community.

Sea otter management resolution seeks to give added economic benefit to SE sea otter cull

House Joint Resolution 26 seeks to set a course for management of the reintroduced sea otter population of Southeast Alaska.

The resolution urges state and federal governments to work with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Southeast Alaska Native leaders to achieve this goal.

The management practice assumed in the bill is an increased cull to slow the growth of the population or to protect specific resources.

To provide economic advantages to the cull, the bill urges federal authorities consider the “use, transfer, and sale of intact sea otter pelts in order to restore to the state’s Native people the right to make full use of sea otters harvested for subsistence while expanding and enhancing economic opportunities for residents of Southeast Alaska,” according to the resolution text.

This section of the resolution did not sit well with the Alaska Federation of Natives and Sealaska Corp. by way of the testimony of AFN board member and Sealaska Heritage Institute President, Rosita Worl.

“This was received with mixed emotions in the native community because we do have an exemption in the Marine Mammal Act,” Worl said. “We fear if we opened it up it might change that protection for Alaska Natives,” Worl said.  “If the language is to allow the sale of pelts to non-natives we would oppose that.”

The language would also raise the considerable ire of animal rights groups, she said.

Re-introduced to Southeast Alaska in the 1960s after being hunted out of the region a century before, sea otters took well to their once-native habitat and flourished.

This rapid expansion into areas is and was viewed simultaneously as a scientific success, a bounty and a scourge.

The concern over sea otters’ effect on fishing goes back at least to the early 1990s.

An L.A. Times headline from 1993 read, “Sea Otter Population Booms Amid Hunting Ban: Alaska: Biologists call it an amazing success story. Natives envision a lucrative fur trade. But conservationists fear there will be abuses.” The article went on to list the lamentations of fishermen and subsistence hunters who saw the growing otter population as a threat to their livelihood.

Worl offered the legislators more than a rebuff at Friday’s House Resources Subcommittee. She said the creativity of Alaska Natives, if unfettered, could increase demand for otter pelts. 

Worl said Native leaders have heard from villagers about the effects of a growing sea otter population on commercial and subsistence fisheries.

“So we tried to see what is it that we could do,” Worl said.

The current Marine Mammal Act limits Native uses of the sea otter to “traditional arts and crafts products,” Worl said. “And this is where we have an issue, what is traditional?” She gave the example of a Native artist being cited for a sea otter teddy bear. Other possible options could be modern clothing designs with zippers and blankets.

Worl proposed using the resolution to urge federal agencies to better define the types of sea otter products Natives are allowed to craft.

The need to cull sea otter is still a controversial issue.

Commercial fisherman Kirk Hardcastle and Dennis Watson, mayor of Craig, had opposing views as to the effects on fishing of the feeding habits of sea otter.

Watson says otters devastate the areas they inhabit.

“They are quite efficient, smart little animals,” Watson said. “After a while you realize that they get into an area and quickly devastate the species in that area.”

Hardcastle says sea otters create habitat for the various life phases of most commercially caught fish and fish caught for subsistence.

“Every species of commercial fish, cod, halibut,” he said.

Trying to keep sea otters from taking commercial fish stocks will affect “100 percent of our fisheries in southeast Alaska, by the decline of our sea otter population,” Hardcastle said.

Sea otters eat sea urchins. Sea urchins eat kelp. When sea otters deplete an area of urchins the kelp forests return providing habitat for the notoriously un-buoyant sea otter. Kelp forests also provide habitat for young sea creatures.

Southeast Alaska in particular needs “healthy kelp forest systems for all of our fisheries, the crab, the halibut, the cod, every other fishery we have needs to rear in those kelp forest before they migrate to outer waters,” Hardcastle said.

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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