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Alaskan Bill Threatens to Introduce New Fur Trade

November 20, 2011

On July 30th, 2011 Representative Don Young (R. – Alaska) introduced H.R. 2714, a bill that threatens to reauthorize the sea otter fur trade for segments of the Alaskan sea otter range. Though cleverly authored as if the bill were aimed at improving the native people’s ability to practice their cultural traditions, Mr. Young’s public comments and actions have revealed the real purpose of the bill: to institute a management plan for Alaskan sea otters on behalf of fishing groups.

The Alaskan Sea Otters

The bill only targets the southcentral and southwest DPS for management (the Alaskan sea otter range is divided into three populations segments (DPS) the southeast, southcentral, and southwest populations). The southwest population is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

The southcentral DPS is perhaps the most successful sea otter population at approximately 12,774 otters. However, these sea otters are not without their challenges. In 1989, the Exxon-Valdez oil spill killed nearly 4,000 sea otters. The sea otter population and parts of the nearshore ecosystem are recovering slowly from this disaster.

The Southeast DPS

The southeast DPS is the successful result of a translocation program in the 1960s that established 13 colonies with approximately 9,136 of sea otters, but growth has been unequal within this range. where population numbers have increased significantly in the southern segment and within Glacier Bay National Park in the northern segment only. Outside of Glacier Bay, the growth rate has been struggling.


Legal Hunting of Sea Otters

Although the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) outlaws the killing of a marine mammal and the trading of its parts, an exception permits the unlimited and non-wasteful harvesting of sea otters by native peoples for subsistence and traditional purposes. It is lawful for native peoples to hunt sea otters and sell their parts, so long as the parts are sufficiently modified in a traditional fashion (to produce, for example, traditional handicrafts and garments). Selling unmodified sea otter pelts remains illegal under the current law.

A 2009 study shows that 8% of the northern segment of the southeast DPS population (outside of Glacier Bay, where hunting is illegal) is hunted each year. Because evidence of other common threats to sea otters (predation, pollution, disease and food limitation) is lacking, otter experts believe that the high harvest rate may be the cause for the decreased population growth rates of the sea otters in this region.  In 2010 alone, 601 sea otters were harvested from the southeast DPS; the highest annual harvest since 1993 and a 55% increase over the annual harvest in 2003.

The Threat

The Don Young bill threatens to increase the harvest levels even more, stripping the requirement under the MMPA that harvested sea otter parts be fashioned into a traditional craft by native peoples.  This opens the market for the trade of plain, unmodified sea otter pelts.  Nothing in the bill would restrict pelts from being sold to businesses and then be fashioned into coats or other commercial items.

The bill rather feeds the interest of Alaskan fisheries, creating a de facto management plan for northern sea otters. Because fishing groups compete with sea otters for their product, an indirect management plan to stabilize or reduce sea otter growth benefits them greatly.

The bill is disastrous for sea otters, the environment, and the people of Alaska. The sea otter’s role in maintaining kelp ecosystems are well known (and described in the No-Otter Zone article of this newsletter), providing numerous ecological and economic benefits to the nearshore environment. The sea otter is also a well-known tourist attraction in Alaska.

If this bill passes and harvest rates increase further, all progress made since the 1960s translocation programs to reintroduce otters and maintain a healthy and balanced nearshore environment that benefits the native peoples will be lost.

How you can help

This bill represents a major threat to sea otter recovery in Alaska. The fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly destroyed the species. Write to your elected officials and urge them to oppose H.R. 2714 and S. 1453 (its identical counterpart in the Senate), the bill that reauthorized the fur trade. Visit www.seaotters.org/takeaction.html to learn how.

 

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