By Naomi Klouda
A Republican from Sitka 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 of dollars lost to the seafood industry.
Sen. Bert Stedman sponsored Senate Bill 60, which, if passed, would be used as a management tool. The bill had its first hearing Wednesday in Juneau. Since the bill isn’t restricted to boundaries, it could 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, 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. The sponsor statement inventories the otter diet as consisting mainly of crabs, clams, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, shrimp and abalone. Sea otters can consume up to 25 percent of their body weight per day. One male otter can consume up to 7,300 pounds of food per year.
As of 2012, it is estimated that there are 21,500 sea otters in Southeast, up significantly from previous years. 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.
Another justification cited by the bill is that 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 laws or regulations related to the taking of any marine mammal under the law unless the Interior secretary 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 is just speculation, 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 combine to 98,000 animals. They are in Southeast, Southcentral and Southwestern. The Southwestern group of otters — Kodiak and the Aleutian Islands, where they were historically hunted to near extinction — still have the otter listed as endangered.
Julianne Curry, executive director of United Fisherman of Alaska, said the group endorses Stedman’s bill. Since 2009, UFA has focused on the issue as part of its sustainable fisheries, advocacy for 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. U.S. FWS could have solved the problem but instead makes it harder for Alaska Natives who would hunt otters. The “significantly altered” law means otter fur has to be transformed into an art or clothing object — raw pelts are illegal to sell to non-Natives.
“That’s one of the biggest hurdles to the exploding sea otter populations. It’s very challenging. There are things they (U.S. FWS) can do internally to address the concerns of Native groups,” Curry said.
If pelts could be sold, more Alaska Natives would hunt them.
Several Southeast governments, like the Wrangell Borough Assembly, back the bill.
Stedman said that he sees the legislation as a draft that will receive input and changes. It moved along to the Judiciary Committee this week.
“They, with the Department of Law and the feds, can sort some of this out. There are several ways we can solve issue. First, we try to solve the problems with dialogue,” he said Friday.
“I’m hoping if other groups want to send in support resolutions, that’s appreciated. By the time we engage at the Judiciary Committee, we’ll have a serious discussion with federal side. They were supposed to review their management plan every three years — not 19 years, which is how long I understand it’s been.”
A companion bill was sponsored in the house by Rep. Charisse Millet, a Republican from Anchorage.
“This is serious. I try to put humor in it, because we all recognize they are cute, cuddly animals in the water. It sounds draconian at first but when you take a look at the impact of coastal Alaska, it’s a whole different outlook,” Stedman said.