A Republican from Ketchikan filed a bill proposing to place a $100 bounty on sea otters, a population deemed so out of control it could be responsible for millions lost to the seafood industry. Sen. Bert Stedman sponsored Senate Bill 60, which if passed, would be be used as a management tool.
The bill has had its first hearing in Juneau.The bill had its first hearing Wednesday in Juneau. The bill would impact other parts of Alaska as well, like Kachemak Bay where a healthy otter population thrives.
The senator writes in his sponsor statement that in Southeast Alaska, the growing sea otter population is devastating the shellfish biomass.
"Sea otters are the only marine mammals without blubber. As a result, the animals have a high metabolism and require large amounts of food to survive," it states. As justification, the focus is on the voracious appetites possessed by otters. Sea otters crabs, clams, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, shrimp and abalone. Sea otters can consume up to 25 percent of their body weight per day.
As of 2012, an estimated 21,500 sea otters live in Southeast Alaska. Using an average body weight of 65 pounds and a daily food intake of 25 percent of body weight, a sea otter population of 21,500 animals will consume over 127 million pounds of shellfish per year, he estimates.
"To put that into perspective, the entire 2010 Southeast Alaska harvest in the dive and dungeness crab fisheries was 5.9 million pounds," Stedman said in his sponsor statement. If unchecked, the population "inevitably threatens the future of dive fisheries and crab fisheries in Southeast, jeopardizing hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity for the region," he wrote.
In recent years, Fish and Game has closed 17 dive fishery harvest areas due to the shrinking biomass. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (of 1972) removed marine mammals from the State of Alaska's management, denying all but Alaska Natives the opportunity to harvest sea otters. In 2012, 842 otters were harvested in Southeast.
"In the absence of any realistic effort by the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to provide a sustainable harvest management regime for sea otters, it is my intention through the introduction of SB 60 to incentivize the lawful harvest of sea otters by Alaska Natives to, at the very least, reach the potential biological removal target (2,800)," he said. "The incentive will come in the form of a $100 bounty paid by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for every sea otter harvested."
The bill carries a fiscal note of $28,000 to pay the bounties on that many animals.
Even if the bill were to pass, it would be unenforceable under the federal law, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. States cannot enforce regulations related to the taking of any marine mammal unless the Secretary of the Interior transfers conservation and management authority to that state.
"If you look at the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it says no state law can be enforced that impacts a protected marine mammal," Woods said. "There's nothing to say they can't pass the law. But it would be an illegal harvest. We would have to, by law, investigate any action."
At this point, how a federal-state fight on the matter would play out isn't clear, but Woods suspects there would have to be some court decision expected. Since Alaska Natives are the only ones allowed to hunt otters, there wouldn't be much difference except in the added incentive of the $100 bounty.
There are three populations of sea otters in Alaska that number a combined 98,000 animals. They are in Southeast, Southcentral and Southwest Alaska. The southwestern group of otters – including Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, where they were historically hunted to near extinction – still list the otter as endangered.
Julianne Curry, executive director of United Fisherman of Alaska, said the group endorses Stedman's bill. Since 2009, United Fishermen has focused on the issue as part of its advocacy of economic opportunities for rural Alaskans and easing burdens to harvesters.
"I think it's good to open a dialogue that is a real issue for people having a hard time making a living in the face of a large sea otter population," Curry said.
Fish and Wildlife could have solved the problem, but instead makes it harder for Alaska Natives to hunt otters because the law requires pelts to be "significantly altered" before being sold to non-Natives. That means otter fur has to be transformed into an art object or clothing.
"That's one of the biggest hurdles to the exploding sea otter populations. It's very challenging. There are things they (Fish and Wildlife) can do internally to address the concerns of Native groups," Curry said. If pelts could be sold, she added, more Alaska Natives would hunt them.
Several Southeast governments, including the Wrangell Borough Assembly, back the bill.
This story first appeared in the Homer Tribune and published here with permission.