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Sea otter trade in Southeast gets heightened scrutiny

  • Author: Jill Burke
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published August 24, 2012

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe will be in Juneau and Sitka to talk with locals about a sea creature that intersects with the livelihoods of hunters, artists and fisherman. The meetings to discuss all things concerning the sea otter was arranged by U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski. It comes nearly a year after it became an issue during the politically powerful Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Oct. 2011.

Sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Alaska Native hunters and artists can harvest the animals and turn their pelts into arts and crafts. Hunters and artists have complained that enforcement of the laws by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officers has been heavy- handed and unfair. At last year's AFN convention, U.S. Rep. Don Young announced he would try to ease some of the tensions by allowing non-Natives to purchase unaltered pelts, helping increase sales for Native hunters and eliminating a criminalized activity, thus keeping people out of jail.

And, there was a third benefit to the legislation, according to Young and his staffers: predator control. Fisherman cannot out-compete the voracious sea weasels, which like to dine on crab, abalone, sea urchin and just about any other shellfish or mollusk they can get their furry paws on. Hunters and artists want the freedom to pursue their work stress-free, and fisherman would like to see more sea otters killed.

Just what, exactly, it will take for Native artisans to maintain their livelihoods touches on many aspects of the hunting and craft-making trade. Who decides whether a pelt is altered enough to be considered a craft legal for sale? Are officers regulating such matters acting fairly?

In a resolution distributed at the AFN convention, the AFN board openly 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."

Director Ash will hold a public meeting Friday in Juneau, will meet with stakeholders in Sitka on Saturday, according to the Juneau Empire.