One of Alaska's iconic creatures has found itself at the center of increasingly tense policy discussions between Alaska Native hunters and artists -- as well as Alaska's lone voice in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, is pushing legislation that would ease restrictions on the sale of sea otter hides by amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The act restricts the harvest and sale of marine mammals.
In an interview Thursday, Young said he proposed the bill for two reasons: to allow the sale of whole sea otter pelts to non-natives, which is now banned, and as a predator control measure. It's win-win, according to Young, who said the legislation carries a side benefit of expanding economic opportunities for Alaska Natives. If passed, it would eliminate a federal crime – the sale of sea otter pelts to non-natives – that has sent some Alaska Natives to prison and slapped others with fines.
Fishermen claim sea otters, once imperiled due to overhunting more than a century ago, have rebounded in force and are voraciously eating their way through the very same clams, sea urchins and crabs that commercial, sport and subsistence fisherman seek.
Only coastal Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt the weasel-like, adorably cute sea otters. Under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's interpretation of the MMPA, it is "illegal to sell, trade or barter marine mammal parts in their natural unaltered form to a non-Native." Only "authentic Native handicrafts" may be sold to non-Natives, defined – some would argue vaguely -- as items that are "significantly altered from their natural form."
On Thursday, the 37-member Alaska Federation of Natives board of directors forwarded a resolution offering to support the intent of Young's legislation, but only if the legislation did not provide for the sale of pelts and included Alaska Natives in management and enforcement.
The issue of pelt sales also received stern opposition a day earlier at the first annual meeting of the Alaska Native Tanner's Association.
"I am vehemently opposed to that. We want the Alaska Native to maintain the whole production chain," Jason Borer, a hunter and sewer who also plans to open a tannery, told a small group of people assembled in a second-floor room at the convention center. What we want the bill to do is increase the economic opportunity for the Alaska Native, not the non-Alaska Native. The hunters will hunt and kill and sell as many pelts as they can possibly sell."
The fear is that by selling to the top bidder – any bidder – Alaska Natives who rely on pelts to create artwork or handicrafts will be priced out of the market. Unable to afford raw materials, the artists will be cut off from the opportunity to create and sell their products.
"That's just being selfish," Young said in an interview Thursday.
According to Young, the notion that Alaska Natives will somehow lose out under his legislation is flawed. If hunters killed as many sea otters as they could, there'd be no way the state's Native artisans could turn all of those raw pelts into gloves, boots, bracelets, hats, scarves, clothing, Christmas ornaments, art or other pieces, he said. And artists could eliminate the middle man – the need to purchase a pelt from a seller – by killing their own animals.
In its resolution, the AFN board also underscored the adversarial relationship brewing between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages sea otters, and the Native community, stating that "Alaska Natives have been subjected to overzealous law enforcement and entrapment practices." The board urged a review of whether Fish and Wildlife enforcement programs should continue to be funded.
The intent of the sea otter harvest allowed under MMPA, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service, is to protect traditional use while defending against new or expanded markets for marine mammal products.
"The goals of FWS actions relating to sea otters have been aimed at controlling Native/non-Native harvest and sale of whole unworked hides, and to increase tagging and reporting of legally harvested animals," Bruce Woods, a spokesperson for the agency, said via email. "We are working to limit non-native (illegal) harvest and the illegal sale of whole hides (which can have a negative impact on the market for handicrafts made from legally harvested hides)." A hearing on the proposed legislation is scheduled to take place next week in Washington, D.C.
Staffers for Young have said the proposed legislation may undergo "tweaks" based on the concerns heard in Anchorage this week at the tanners association meeting.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com