The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Friday afternoon during a committee hearing that he will work with Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, on the Southeast Islands senator’s bill to provide a bounty for legally harvested sea otters — a proposal a legislative lawyer said is in conflict with federal law.
Senate Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, called the issue “very important” and said he wants to find a “win-win” solution that will allow the state to protect crab and shellfish stocks affected by the surging sea otter population in Southeast Alaska, while protecting the sea otters as well.
“My commitment is to work with the sponsor to navigate those gray areas that you brought up,” Coghill said. “And with your minds and the help of some of my staff who have legal expertise, we will navigate through this and see if we can come up with a solution that really is a win-win, that will help not only this population, but the harvest of seafood.”
Senate Bill 60 would require the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to pay a person $100 per sea otter that he or she can provide to have taken in accordance with law.
The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the deliberate capture or killing of marine mammals, including sea otters, but includes an exception for Alaska Natives hunting for subsistence purposes or to make artisanal handicraft.
Stedman, who introduced S.B. 60 in February, said Southeast’s sea otters — hunted to extinction during the fur trade, but thriving after their reintroduction to the region in the 1960s, with a population recently estimated at above 25,000 — have forced commercial crab and shellfish fishermen to abandon former fishing grounds and share increasingly small areas where sea otters have yet to impact their harvest.
S.B. 60 represents an effort to slow down the double-digit annual population growth of sea otters in Southeast, Stedman told the committee.
“What we’re trying to do, Mr. Chairman, is not eradicate them,” said Stedman. “We’re not trying to suppress their population to a miniscule level. What we’re trying to do is slow down the overpopulation in the concentrated areas and let them expand out through their natural habitat in Southeast and let nature take its course a little slower, with a little softer impact.”
ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Craig Fleener agreed, telling the committee that sea otters threaten the long-term viability of major Southeast fisheries due to their rapid population growth and voracity.
“If the current trajectory continues, we’re likely not going to be able to sustain those fisheries in Southeast,” Fleener said. “Sea otters are an important element of the Southeast Alaska ecosystem and should be managed under conservation principles to assure long-term health. However, Fish and Game believes that sea otters should not be protected at the expense of other elements of the ecosystem.”
Fleener reiterated that point a few minutes later, saying, “We manage the fisheries in Southeast, and the difficult part of this situation is we can’t manage the sea otters that are having the negative impact. We can only manage what is being impacted, and typically the only management action we can take, really, is closing harvest when the numbers are low. And that’s not the best course of action.”
Also testifying in response to questions from the committee was Larry Bell, assistant regional director for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska.
Bell acknowledged that the USFWS management plan for sea otters is 19 years old and predates much of the Southeast population’s rapid expansion, but he said the agency’s responsibility in the matter is to implement the MMPA.
“The plan is a guiding document that guides our management activities relative to implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” Bell said. “So there’s no requirement by law to have … the management plan. It’s required by law that we manage under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
Bell also noted that the exception allowing Alaska Natives to harvest sea otters is “the most liberal it can be.”
Said Bell, “There are no season dates. There are no license requirements. There are no bag limits. So within the qualified user group, they can pretty much harvest at will under the current management procedure.”
Legislative Counsel, part of the Alaska Legislative Affairs Agency’s Division of Legal and Research Services, has provided an opinion suggesting S.B. 60 conflicts with federal law, because the MMPA gives the federal agency jurisdiction over marine mammal management and the bill appears to incentivize the hunting of sea otters.
Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, challenged Legislative Counsel lawyer Alpheus Bullard’s memorandum on the legality of the bill.
“I looked at your opinion, and I respectfully disagree, and I just want you to explore it with me for a second,” said McGuire.
McGuire said she thinks it is clear that the bill specifies that the $100 bounty can only be paid to individuals who take the sea otters legally.
“While it’s possible to argue in the manner that you have, and all arguments are possible … this bill doesn’t incentivize the making of artisanal handicrafts or subsistence — it incentivizes taking sea otters,” Bullard replied. “This is a state law which is really inconsistent with the protection of sea otters, which is the purpose of the federal act.”
While Stedman said he introduced S.B. 60 “to encourage discussion with the feds” on sea otter management, McGuire cautioned that the bill may not be able to accomplish sweeping goals of changing federal statutes or management.
“We may not be able to take this particular issue head-on in all the areas that you want,” said McGuire. “But what I think you can certainly agree is that there is an exception under the Marine Mammal (Protection) Act … that allows for subsistence hunting by Native Alaskans and allows for the taking of sea otters for artisanal purposes. That’s a fact. And to that end, however you want to describe this fee, this reimbursement, this amount that is paid, I do not agree at all that the state is not entitled to make that fee.”
As he adjourned the hearing, Coghill said the bill will be heard again.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.