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Sea otter pelts remain for Alaska Natives only

Pushback influenced change to legislative resolution

Posted: February 14, 2012 - 1:02am

For non-Native Alaskans who had their hearts set on a sea otter pelt to hang next to other trophies, their hopes may be running out.

A recent resolution introduced by Rep. Peggy Wilson, R-Wrangell, attempts to better manage the population of sea otters in Southeast Alaska through a more aggressive cull.

The House Resources Committee passed a revised version of the non-binding House Joint Resolution 26, which urges the federal government to update regulations on sea otter use by Alaska Natives.

Wilson revised the original resolution to remove the recommendation to allow Alaska Natives to sell raw sea otter pelts to non-Natives. The change came a week after some Native groups voiced strong opposition.

At today's House Resource Committee meeting, the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association’s Executive Director, Julianne Curry, pushed back against this change, saying it came under pressure from the Alaska Native arts community and a number of harvesters want the option to sell to non-Natives, they just haven't spoken out yet.

Wilson urged interested harvesters to contact her office.

To give Alaska Natives broader freedom in the styles of handicrafts that they create, the resolution recommends the Federal government, through the Marine Mammal Protection Act, redefine allowed art from “Authentic and Traditional” to “Alaska Native Articles of Handicraft.” Arthur Martin, a legislative intern for Wilson said in testimony.

Though the resolution passed unanimously, committee members took time during their comments to express dislike for the resolution’s strong rhetoric. The bill assumes Southeast ecosystems are out of balance due to sea otter growth and the subsequent need to cull. However, Martin said the bill is written to create a discussion, not give direction.

Rep. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, said a previous McDowell Group study gave reasons other than sea otters for the decline of geoduck, cucumber and urchin harvests.

Kawasaki later called into question the resolution’s assumption of the sea otter’s negative impact on fisheries.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, asked for the editorializing language be toned down as it will “build up the hysteria around the issue.”

Tina Brown, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance said the strong rhetoric in the resolution was divisive.

“This issue is escalating and you haven’t even passed the resolution yet,” Brown said.

She asked legislators to be patient before advocating population reduction. The research is underway to find out sea otters’ effect on Southeast ecology, but more time is needed, she said.

Brown said the Legislature shouldn’t pick winners and losers in the ecological marketplace.

“Are we going to choose sea cucumbers over sea otters?” Brown asked.

The resolution is good if it attempts to give Alaska Native artists more protection and more freedom, Brown said. She would oppose it, she said, “if the resolution is an attempt to use Native Alaskans as a tool for sea otter predator control.”

Greg Brown, a Juneau resident who owns Weather Permitting charters with his wife Tina, testified he believed sea otters could improve the ecosystem and are worth their tourism dollars. Greg gave an example of an annual sea-otter-themed bike tour held on the southern Pacific coast.

Greg advised working with the sea otters.

“Embrace nature and not fight it, we can all become rich,” Brown said.

Committee member Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he appreciated the changes made to HJR 26. He said the resolution urges the expansion of the use of sea otters by Native Alaskans while not letting the harvest get out of control.

The Committee Substitute for House Joint Resolution 26 passed the House Resources Committee unanimously on Monday.

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

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