Alaska Program

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Alaskan Sea Otters

Alaskan Sea Otters

Alaskan sea otters are at the heart of the sea otter’s historical range, and since the end of the fur trade, have rebounded unlike in many other regions, but still face threats.  And, the southwest stock of sea otters in Alaska are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

From the Aleutian Islands to British Columbia, sea otters number approximately 70,000.

These sea otters are currently facing a likely reintroduction of legislation that would put greater hunting pressure for segments of the Alaskan sea otter range.


How can you help?
Legislation that would broaden the definition of what could be made from sea otters for native handicraft items represents a major threat to sea otter recovery in Alaska. The fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries nearly destroyed the species. Friends of the Sea Otter will let you know when this terrible legislation is reintroduced in the new Congress.  Click Here to read our Cover Letter and Main Comments submitted August 6, 2013 from Friends of the Sea Otter, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, Oceans Public Trust Initiative, a project of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Program, Animal Welfare Institute, and International Fund for Animal Welfare, submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that no handicraft take by Alaska natives will be used for fishery conflict management and that the definition of such take will be narrow and not allow for expanded harvest of sea otters.

Also, legislation that will likely be revisited in 2015 is a bounty bill that Alaska State Senator Bert Stedman (R) introduced back in 2013 to try and incentivize native harvest of sea otters for the sake of fisheries.  Friends of the Sea Otter and our partners will be tracking this and making every effort to derail this harmful legislation.

In the interim time while there may be attempts in reintroducing federal legislation and next year’s legislative session on the Bounty Bill, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook a process in 2013-2014 to get feedback on their definition of “significantly altered” as it pertains to what can be made from a sea otter for native handicraft purposes (only native Alaskans can hunt sea otters for handicraft purposes).  This is happening under the backdrop of state of Alaska, some of its fishing industry and state and federal elected officials trying to turn back the clock on marine mammal conservation by more than 40 years by advocating for the management of sea otters by killing them for the sake of small commercial interest groups.  The comment period has ended to tell U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure that no handicraft take by Alaska natives will be used for fishery conflict management and that the definition of such take will be narrow and not allow for expanded harvest of sea otters.  In addition, the message delivered during the comment period is that FWS should provide for full public comment through adequate notice and public meetings, not just a minor announcement on the agency website.

For more information, contact FSO at Click here to download a factsheet with more important information.

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Hunting History

The Marine Mammal Protection Act outlaws the killing of a marine mammal and the trading of its parts. However, an exception exists for 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, but only if the parts are sufficiently modified, or “significantly altered” in a traditional fashion (to produce, for example, traditional handicrafts and garments). The selling of an unmodified sea otter pelt remains illegal under the current law, protecting sea otters from the commercialization of their fur.

According to a 2009 study conducted for the U.S. Geological Service (USGS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Glacier Bay National Park, George Esslinger and James Bodkin found that 8% of the sea otter population inhabiting the northern segment of the southeast Distinct Population Segment (DPS) (outside of Glacier Bay, where hunting is illegal) is hunted annually. Because evidence of other common threats to sea otters (predation, pollution, disease and food limitation) is lacking, Esslinger and Bodkin believe that the high harvest rate may be the cause for the decreased population growth rates of the sea otters in this region.

Sea otter harvest levels in southeast Alaska have increased since the study was published. Mean annual harvest from 2003-2010 was 401 animals, representing a 24% increase over 1990-2003 levels. In 2010 alone, 601 sea otters were harvested from the southeast DPS. This was the highest annual harvest since 1993 and accounts for a 55% increase over the annual harvest in 2003.

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Alaskan sea otters at a glance

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From the Aleutian Islands to British Columbia, sea otters number approximately 70,000, though their concentrations and disbursement vary region by region.

To better monitor northern sea otters in Alaska, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has divided the Alaskan sea otter range into three distinct population segments (DPS): the southeast, southcentral, and southwest populations. Immigration between these areas is rare. Because the southwest population has experienced such a rapid decline in numbers, they have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and Rep. Young and Senator Murkowski’s legislation targets the non-threatened southcentral and southwestern sea otters for management.  But, the reality is that FWS law enforcement personnel would be hard pressed to distinguish between sea otters from the three different DPS.

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The southcentral DPS is perhaps the most successful sea otter population with the most recent survey (stock assessment report from 2008), conducted between 2000 and 2003, estimating about 15,000 sea otters. However, these sea otters still face challenges. In 1989, an Exxon-Valdez oil tanker struck a shallow reef in the Prince William Sound, killing nearly 4,000 sea otters in the ensuing oil spill. Since then, studies have shown that the sea otter population and parts of the nearshore ecosystem are only slowly recovering from that disaster.

The Southeast DPS

The southeast DPS is the successful result of a translocation program in the 1960s that established 13 colonies of sea otters in southeast Alaska. From these colonies the population has grown to between 21,000 and 25,000 (V. Gill, FWS, unpublished data, 2013).

Growth, however, has been unequal within the southeast DPS. Dividing the range into two segments (northern and southern segments) reveals that the growth in population numbers has been largely concentrated in the southern segment and within Glacier Bay National Park in the northern segment. Outside of Glacier Bay, the growth rate of the northern population has struggled and either declined or stabilized in the last few decades, even though abundant habitat remains unutilized by sea otters.

Threats H.R. 2714

The Threat

On July 30th, 2011 Representative Don Young (R. – Alaska) introduced H.R. 2714 and subsequently in the same year Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced a senate companion bill. The bill threatens to broaden the definition for what constitutes native handicraft items made from sea otter pelts based on the term “significantly altered”.  This would have impacts for all segments of the Alaskan sea otter range, but is meant to focus on sea otter populations in Southeast Alaska where complaints of negative interaction between sea otters and fisheries from segments of the fishing community and elected officials. Though cleverly authored as if the bill were aimed to enhance the local native people’s ability to practice their cultural traditions, in public comments and actions Rep. Young revealed the real purpose of the bill is to institute a management plan for Alaskan sea otters on behalf of fishing groups.  This is essentially fisheries management through predator control.  As of 2013, it is believed that the intent of Congressman Young and Senator Murkowski (along with Senator Begich) to reintroduce their legislation.

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Rep. Young’s bill threatens to increase the harvest levels and therefore increase pressure on northern sea otter recovery. The bill would remove the requirement under the Marine Mammal Protection Act that harvested sea otter parts be fashioned into a traditional craft by native peoples. This would open the market for the trade of 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. As current harvest rates may already be affecting the growth of the southeast otters’ range, any further increase of this rate due to the commercialization of sea otter fur could be disastrous for sea otters.

The bill also fails to create an enforcement mechanism by which the origin of harvested sea otters can be verified. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act every sea otter harvested must be “tagged” and recorded by a Fish and Wildlife agent at stations located throughout Alaska. Though it is common to tag harvested sea otters within the DPS in which the sea otter lived, it is still lawful to tag otters outside their range leaving it so that there is no way an FWS agent can verify whether a harvested sea otter originates from the threatened southwest population or not. Therefore, even though the southwest population is excluded, this bill may still result in more harvests from the threatened population.

What the bill does accomplish is a de facto management plan for northern sea otters in the interest of Alaskan fisheries. Because fishing groups must compete with sea otters for certain species, an indirect management plan to stabilize growth or reduce the number of sea otters in the region would benefit fishermen greatly.

The bill is disastrous for sea otters, the environment, and the people of Alaska. The sea otters maintain kelp ecosystems, as previously mentioned in the No-Otter Zone article, and provide numerous ecological and economic benefits to the nearshore environment. The sea otter is also a well-known tourist attraction in Alaska.

If harvest rates continue to increase, all the progress that has resulted because of the reintroduction programs of the 1960s will be lost.

Congressman Don Young Speaking During a House Resources Hearing on his Sea Otter Bill

Native Handicrafts

Native Handicrafts

In 2013 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertook an effort to clear up ambiguity in the select terms under the Marine Mammal Protect Act that governs how native handicraft items are created.  Friends of the Sea Otter and our colleague organizations, Animal Welfare Institute, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, International Fund for Animal Welfare, and Oceans Public Trust Initiative, a Project of Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Program, submitted extensive comments on this effort and we were concerned about this effort being conducted under the backdrop of pressure from some Alaskan elected officials and fishing groups to “do something” about Southeast Alaska’s “growing” sea otter population.

Our groups had great concern that this effort to clarify select terms, especially the term “significantly altered”, was going to lead to greater ambiguity and more flexibility in the creation of native handicrafts, that would, in turn, lead to greater hunting pressure on sea otters in Southeast Alaska and elsewhere in Alaska.  And, we felt that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was carrying out this effort as a means of predator control to cull sea otter populations because of concern about conflicts with fisheries in Southeast Alaska.

Read our comments and take a look at a flyer we created to send to Native communities, organizations, tribes, etc. to clarify the law and what needs to be followed in order that a native handicraft item can be considered to be “significantly altered”.  And, we placed ads in Southeast Alaska newspapers (Juneau Empire, Juneau Empire Online, and Capitol City Weekly).