A bill by Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, that would place a $100 bounty on sea otters harvested legally in Alaska attracted vocal support in a Senate Resources Committee hearing Wednesday, despite Stedman’s admission that the bill as drafted appears to be unenforceable under federal law.
Stedman introduced Senate Bill 60 last month, calling it an effort to slow the booming population growth among sea otters in Southeast Alaska.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game blames the rise in sea otters, which were reintroduced to Southeast Alaska in the 1960s after being hunted to near-extinction during the height of the fur trade, for the decline of crab, shellfish and marine invertebrate fisheries in the region.
“They literally eat everything, and the gravelly bottom looks like it has been bombed out,” said Stedman, who brought a sea otter pelt he said was loaned from a fellow legislator to the hearing and spread it out across the table in front of him while he spoke.
Sea otters are voracious feeders. ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Craig Fleener said they often consume a quarter of their body weight every day, and their main diet is crustaceans, shellfish, and marine invertebrates like sea cucumbers and sea urchins.
Sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which became federal law just a few years after the translocation of sea otters back to Southeast’s coastal waters. The act gives regulatory authority over marine mammals to the federal government and prohibits them from being intentionally killed, although an amendment to the law in the 1990s gives Alaska Natives the right to hunt sea otters for “subsistence” purposes.
Less than 50 years after the animals were reintroduced in Southeast Alaska, there are now more than 25,000 sea otters estimated to live in the region. Last year, 842 sea otters were legally harvested.
Stedman suggested he wants to increase that latter number to keep the former number from getting too much larger.
“I think that we could accomplish the goal of allowing the sea otters to spread through Southeast at a lower number and not devastate our beaches and … our clam beds and our crabs,” Stedman said.
Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, asked whether Stedman has received a legal opinion and if he could share it with the committee.
“It conflicts with federal law,” Stedman admitted.
But Stedman suggested that there may be ways to tweak his bill.
“If this mechanism is not palatable with the attorneys … we could always move the funds to the tannery, or what have you, to help encourage the same solution,” said Stedman.
Fleener said the ADF&G has been trying to find a solution to the sea otter explosion, but so far, it has been unsuccessful in getting around the MMPA. He said the department “supports the concept of bounties” despite the “legal issues.”
“We applaud Sen. Stedman’s efforts,” Fleener told the committee. “They’re really in line with what the department has been trying to accomplish for several years now.”
Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, joked, “There’s some sentiment in this building to put the bounty on the feds.”
Several members of the public, most of them involved in the dive fishing industry, testified by telephone in favor of S.B. 60. Among them was Craig Mayor Dennis Watson.
“The only way this issue can be reined in is by reducing the sea otter population, and it needs to happen quickly,” said Watson. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to have an incentive, such as a bounty, to speed this process up.”
Kupreanof resident Joseph Sebastian was the only person to testify Wednesday in opposition to S.B. 60. He called the bill “unprofessional, unscientific, racist and culturally destructive” and warned it would “start a new sea otter gold rush,” which he compared to Russian imperialism in Southeast Alaska during the fur trade.
“S.B. 60 is a knee-jerk attempt to solve a complex problem and makes a scapegoat out of a nonoffensive sea mammal,” Sebastian said.
Several people came to the committee hearing hoping to testify in person on the bill, including Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl and Alaska Wildlife Alliance President Tina Brown.
However, Senate Resources Committee Chairwoman Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, closed public testimony as the hearing neared the end of its scheduled time. She said people will have an opportunity to testify on the bill Friday, as it was held in committee with no action taken Wednesday.
Brown said at an Alaska Wildlife Event at the University of Alaska Southeast Wednesday night that she encourages people to testify on Friday.
“I really, really urge you to send in a comment or testify early about this,” said Brown, who offered to provide “talking points” to those who wish to testify. “Yes, it’s not legal for the state to implement that law if it passes. It’s not legal. But if you had been in that room today, you would have wanted to send in comment or say something, because you would not have realized that it would be illegal for them to implement such a law. And it’s really beneficial when all user groups of the public participate in the process, not just one segment, which is mainly what’s happening right now.”
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.