In traditional Tlingit culture the hunting of seals, Tsaa, was taught to hunters by their uncles. Protocols taught young hunters the proper way to hunt seals to prevent wastefulness and to respect the resource. These protocols continue to be taught today, and they have been modified to our modern ways of seal hunting.
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As an Alaska Native who hunts marine mammals, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service marine mammal tagger and biosampler, an Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission biosampler and harvest survey monitor, and an employee of the Southeast Alaska Inter-Tribal Fish and Wildlife Commission, I was saddened to read the Juneau Empire article, "Harbor seals shot on Douglas," on March 10. As the local harbor seal harvest survey monitor, I am in contact with many of Juneau's seal hunters. They report being pressured to hunt farther and farther away from town because of the negative perceptions some people have against seal hunting. Sadly, reports like this do not bolster seal hunting's image.
The article was about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service Office of Law Enforcement investigation into the shooting of two harbor seals on Douglas Island. Quoting the National Marine Fisheries Service press release, Elizabeth Bluemink wrote, "The Marine Mammal Protection Act protects seals, sea lions, whales and other species from harassment. Under the 1972 law, it is illegal to harass, shoot, chase or feed marine mammals in the wild."
Bluemink failed to report that under Section 101(b) of the act, Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt marine mammals. Section 101(b) reads, "The provisions of this Act shall not apply with respect to the taking of any marine mammal by any Indian, Aleut, or Eskimo who resides in Alaska and who dwells on the coast of the North Pacific Ocean or the Arctic Ocean if such taking - (1) is for subsistence purposes; or (2) is done for purposes of creating and selling authentic native articles of handicrafts and clothing."
On March 8, Mark Oswell of NOAA Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement in Maryland posted a news release about the shootings on NOAA's Web site. This news release cited the incidents and noted that federal law prohibits the taking of marine mammals. It did not, however, note the Native exemption. I subsequently learned from Oswell that local enforcement had originally sent the release to Maryland noting the Native exemption, but because federal officials believed the seals in question were not subsistence harvested, that the language was removed.
University of Alaska Southeast professor and harbor seal researcher Beth Mathews was contacted by Bluemink and was asked to comment on the story and was read the news release. Bluemink failed to capture Mathews' response that harbor seal hunting is protected by federal law and that harbor seals are occasionally struck and lost in the process of hunting and that this incident may not be newsworthy.
Agent Ron Antaya of NOAA Enforcement in Juneau has received numerous calls regarding the incident and Bluemink's article. Antaya said his goal is to get good accurate information out to the public to better serve them. NOAA Enforcement is aware of Native exemptions but also wants to stop illegal shooting of marine mammals.
Agent Antaya was unhappy with Bluemink's story because he was contacted by Bluemink on a Thursday afternoon but couldn't get back to her until the next morning at which time Bluemink stated she had already submitted the article and had moved on to other stories. Unhappy with the Empire article, Antaya had another news release printed in the Anchorage Daily News that the Office of Law Enforcement is pleased with.
Illegal shooting of marine mammals is something that harvesters, commissions and agencies are concerned with, but not every mammal found with a bullet wound has been illegally shot. Determining from a carcass which animals were shot legally and which illegally is not an easy task. Hunters wishing to learn some protocols and be included in the Alaska Native Harbor Seal Commission's Marine Mammal Survey should contact the Southeast Alaska Inter-Tribal Fish & Wildlife Commission at 463-7124. Our organization believes these seals were struck and lost seals that are accounted for in our annual marine mammal surveys.
Nathan Soboleff is a member of the Southeast Inter-Tribal Fish & Wildlife Commission.