Some tribes against state management of sea otter population

Sea otters in Alaska. (Photo by
patrickmoody / Flickr)

Kayla Desroches/KMXT

State leaders are seeking leeway in the federal protection of sea otters in order to manage the predation of shellfish, but at least one Alaska Native group thinks the sea otter population should remain a federal concern.

Sea otters are a protected species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, or MMPA, but still subject to harvest by Alaska Natives.

At its meeting in Anchorage last week, the Board of Fisheries approved the draft of a letter asking the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Commerce and the Interior to adjust the MMPA to allow for management of the sea otter population between some combination of federal, state, and Alaska Native groups. Board member Robert Ruffner said changing the act is a big deal.

“We do have a somewhat unique situation when you consider all of the marine mammals and just the successful growth rate that we’re having. The literature that I can find from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is referenced in this letter, talks about a 12 to 14 percent growth rate.”

The Board of Fisheries has since sent the letter. It expresses concern about the sea otters’ effect on commercial and subsistence harvest of shellfish and other sea animals, especially taking into consideration the rising number of sea otters in Southeast.

Two resolutions before the House and Senate have a similar goal. The legislation would amend the MMPA to allow Alaska Native groups together with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game or the National Marine Fisheries Service to co-manage, take and study marine mammals.

A group based out of Old Harbor is against the state’s involvement. The Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission represents tribes across the state and voted to oppose the legislation at a quarterly meeting last week.

Executive director Lianna Jack Peterson says they recognize that the expanding population of sea otters is an issue, but says traditionally, the relationship between tribes and the state has been adversarial. They’d prefer sea otters to remain under federal control.

“Y’know, we believe that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service needs to work with the tribes and the tribally authorized organizations. Really, just flat out, that’s where it needs to be.”

But she says the current approach to sea otters as a resource and a population could be better.

“Through supporting the development of harvest management plans, through looking at changing regulations, we believe that balance can be achieved, but presently, that’s not happening.”

She says the Alaska Sea Otter and Steller Sea Lion Commission would like to see a different approach to certain aspects of sea otter harvest. For instance, they want to see more tanneries willing to process marine animals at lower prices.

At its meeting, the commission approved a resolution strongly opposing the legislation and forwarded it to the Senate Resources Committee, which held its first hearing on Senate Joint Resolution 13 on Monday. The resolution is subject to changes before its next hearing.

Edit 3/16: The first version of this article suggested the co-management would be between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Native groups. An updated version takes into consideration the possibility of including the National Marine Fisheries Service in management, which was discussed at the Senate Joint Resolution 13 on Monday.

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