Petersburg assembly joins call for increased sea otter harvest

A sea otter floats on its back. (Photo by Theresa Soley/KTOO)

A sea otter floats on its back. (Photo by Theresa Soley/KTOO)

Petersburg Borough Assembly joined the call this month for measures to slow a growing population of sea otters in Southeast, as the marine mammals are impacting shellfish stocks.

The Assembly passed a resolution at its March 5 meeting, calling for the federal government to work with the State of Alaska and Alaska Native tribes to establish strategies for an ecological balance of shellfish resources and the reintroduced sea otters.

The municipal government sought input on the problem and received letters from commercial fishing organizations like the Petersburg Vessels Owners Association, United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters and the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fisheries Association.

Those letters call for measures to increase the harvest of otters and allowances for expanded use of their pelts by coastal Alaska Natives.

Sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and only coastal Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt them and sell products made from otter pelts.

Petersburg Assembly member Eric Castro was convinced to pass the resolution in support of changes to otter management.

“All the letters written to this point have been very compelling by all the individuals and groups,” Castro said. “I sincerely hope that our federal officials take note on our comments.”

Otters in Southeast were nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, but were reintroduced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the 1960s.

Otter numbers in parts of the region are growing by as high 13 percent a year and they now number in the tens of thousands.

They’re also expanding back into parts of the Panhandle that haven’t seen otters since the height of the fur trade.

Commercial fishermen have called on the state’s Board of Fisheries, the congressional delegation and the president to slow the otters’ impact on clams, crab and other seafood.

Petersburg’s resolution calls for more active management to combat growing otter populations and involvement by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska Native tribes.

It combines some of the language from a state resolution introduced by Republican state Sen. Bert Stedman along with resolutions from other municipalities and organizations.

Assembly member and Alaska Department of Fish and Game research diver Jeff Meucci originally suggested the Assembly pass such measure but questioned some of the wording.

“It also says be it further resolved that it authorize the Alaska Native organization or the Alaska Department of Fish and game to take as many marine mammals as necessary,” Meucci said. “If we’re not really concerned with what it says that’s fine but it just seems kinda unrealistic to expect Fish and Game to be harvesting marine mammals.”

Meucci did not suggest any changes to the wording and the assembly passed it by a 6-0 vote.

Meanwhile the state resolution calls for the federal government to allow the state to co-manage sea otters and increase harvest of the federally protected marine mammals. It has been referred to the Senate Resources Committee.

A companion bill has been introduced in the House.

The Organized Village of Kake opposes the state resolution.

In February, the tribal government for the community on Kupreanof Island passed its own resolution, which says “fish and game resources managed by the state of Alaska such as (but not limited to) salmon, herring, shellfish, Sitka black tail deer have not proven to be sustainable and cannot be used as a model for successful management.”

Kake opposes state involvement in the management of otters.

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