PETERSBURG — This year will set a record for the biggest harvest of sea otters from Alaska coastal communities, a trend that matches a growing population.
So far, this year’s harvest is at least 1,380 sea otters, but that number is expected to rise since most harvesting takes place in the fall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Brad Benter told KFSK (http://is.gd/EomHDx).
That tops the 1,281 sea otters harvested in both 2011 and 2012.
Sea otters can only be hunted by Alaska Natives under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. These numbers do not reflect illegal or unreported kills by non-Natives. There is no set season, bag limit or permit requirements for Alaska Natives, but hunters must report their kills.
The sea otter population has been growing in southeast and southcentral Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates the sea otter population in 2011 was about 26,000 in Southeast, up from about 11,000 in 2002.
Data provided by hunters is valuable for sea otter research and management and will allow modeling to better manage the species, agency biologist Verena Gill said.
Sea otters were wiped in Southeast out by the fur trade in the early 20th century. The state reintroduced about 400 otters to the region in the 1960s.
The increase in growth and the otters’ voracious appetites for shellfish is a concern for commercial crabbers, dive fishermen and fishery managers, who blame the otters for a loss of productive fishing grounds.
That has prompted encouragement for more hunting, including a bill from state Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, which would pay $100 for every otter killed. That bill remains in committee and could be considered when the Legislature reconvenes in January, though officials say the payment would be illegal under federal law.
Gill said the federal service and the University of Alaska are working to assess how much harvest is sustainable.
“A sustainable harvest is extremely important to us,” said Lee Kadinger, chief operating officer for Sealaska Heritage Institute, which administers the regional Alaska Native corporation’s cultural and educational programs. The use of sea otter hides falls under that jurisdiction.
The institute has started offering classes in the Native art of skin sewing, which was nearly a lost art because of the earlier decline of the population in Southeast.
“It was out of those classes that we had many people that had an interest in working with sea otter. They just didn’t have the skills passed down to them,” Kadinger said.
The institute is promoting the development of a skin-sewing industry for Alaska Native. However, some Native hunters and artisans complain regulatory language and enforcement actions concerning the sale of sea otter handicrafts and clothing outside the Native community had discouraged their interest.
Federal officials said they are working to clarify the rules.