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Alaska ivory hunters caught on tape

Jill Burke
USGS photo

Southwest Alaska, famed for its legendary salmon runs, is also home to another majestic wildlife marvel: The Round Islands State Game Sanctuary in Togiak Bay. Each year thousands of migrating walruses gather here in one of the largest congregations of these mammals in North America.

The islands are also home to researchers and--during the summer--adventurous tourists. But on Monday, May 9, a visit from two villagers from nearby Togiak took the scientists by surprise. There was a spray of bullets, a walrus died; ultimately one of the men landed in jail and both men now face criminal charges. Theirs is a cautionary tale of the trouble one can get into when drinking, driving boats and shooting guns--if the investigators' version of events is accurate. 

Two 47-year-old men, Jessie Arnariak and Sixty Arkanakyak, are accused of loading up with liquor and then driving their skiff up to a group of Pacific walrus (a federally protected species). The walrus were hauled out on Round Island inside the sanctuary. The men opened fire on them at close range. One walrus died and three others were severely injured, according to Alaska State Troopers, one of the agencies investigating the shooting. 

It's not the killing of the walrus that has the men--Native Alaskan hunters--in trouble with the law. The federal Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically protects the hunting privileges of Alaska Natives. But they are required to take the walrus meat for food. Arnariak and Arkanakyak are accused of taking only the animal's highly valuable ivory tusks. That they drifted into state sanctuary waters out of season and without the required permits has added to the slew of charges against them. 

Indigenous hunters are the only Alaskans allowed to hunt and kill marine mammals, but some standards apply to all Alaska hunters. State law requires that the meat of a killed animal be salvaged, and all hunters must hunt during approved harvest times.

At Round Island, the walrus hunt for qualifying Native villagers in the region only takes place in the fall. The hunters are collectively allowed to take 20 of the animals, but they must have permits to enter
the sanctuary and to participate in the hunt. 

Along with being in trouble for hunting illegally, Arnariak and Arkanakyak are also accused of violating liquor laws by bringing liquor into a community that prohibits alcohol. Arnariak is accused of driving the boat drunk and accessing the sanctuary by boat without a permit; Arkanakyak, who troopers caught up later in the village of Togiak after the incident, is also accused with weapons misconduct. All of the charges are misdemeanors, but troopers cautioned the men could yet find themselves charged with more serious crimes stemming from the event. 

Researchers on Round Island apparently witnessed all of the events, and took pictures and video of the men as they carried out the illegal hunt. 

Investigators now have possession of those images. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is not allowing its personnel who witnessed and recorded the event to talk about it with reporters. Its following a request by the investigative team handling the case to keep quiet. Fish and Game personnel similarly said they would not release any of the images without permission from State Troopers, who are handling the ongoing investigation. 

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com