Otter measure drops whole-pelt sales provision

Will Ware, left, and Derek Lopez display the pelt of a sea otter at the Petersburg Indian Association office in 2011. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld.

The House Resources Committee has approved a scaled-back measure aimed at increasing sea otter harvests. It’s a significant change for the resolution authored by Wrangell Representative Peggy Wilson.

Aide Arthur Martin addressed the committee on Monday.

“A concern was raised with the ability of Native peoples to sell sea otter pelts to anyone. So we removed all mention of the sale of intact sea otter pelts and crafted the language and a few changes that clarified the issue,” Martin said.

Federal rules allow only coastal Alaska Natives to kill otters. And they can only sell pelts to non-Natives that are turned into traditional clothing or crafts.

The updated resolution calls for the state to work with federal officials to update otter harvest rules. That includes allowing Natives to turn pelts into modern handicrafts. The change could encourage more hunting by providing a larger market, but not as much as whole-pelt sales.

Fishermen and divers have seen shellfish numbers drop as the voracious marine mammals expand their numbers and range. That’s led some to ask the federal government to increase otter harvests.

Sea otters rest on their backs near Sitka Sound in 2011. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld.

Sitka’s Mike Miller, of the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals, told the committee it’s a serious threat.

“There’s definitely concern in the Native community about the impact the otters have. And we need to protect both the otters, but also the resources the community relies on like subsistence and commercial shellfish and things like that,” Miller said.

Others asked the committee to drop any effort to slow otter growth. They said such actions would upset the environmental balance and inspire national protection campaigns that could hurt tourism.

“Opening the door for predator control for sea otters also opens the door for predator control on other protected species such as Steller sea lions and humpback whales,” said Tina Brown of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.

“And if you don’t think this is the case, haven’t been listening, because people are already talking about that,” she said.

But Petersburg Vessel Owners Association Executive Director Julianne Curry said many of her members want increased harvests.

“What we’d be looking for is for coastal Natives, who are allowed to harvest under current regulations, to be able to sell a sea otter pelt to a non-Native,” Curry said.

Sponsor Wilson says she will consider further changes to the resolution.