AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Sea otters: An Alaska political predicament

Jill Burke
Alaska Native artist Christy Ruby.
Stephen Nowers photo
James Young, operations manager for the Sitka Tribal Tannery, shows a garment weight sea otter pelt on the exhibition floor of the 2011 Alaska Federation of Natives convention on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
A sea otter blanket with a fabric backing by Christy Ruby. This is an example of a significantly altered hide.
Stephen Nowers photo
Shaaxaani kisses her sleeping daughter Naat Stlaa during Thursday's AFN convention in Anchorage. Shaaxaani uses a sea otter pelt as a baby blanket for Naat Stlaa.
Stephen Nowers photo

Sea otters, adorably furry, plush and playful, delight Alaskans and tourists to the Last Frontier every year. They perform acrobatics as they roll their bodies over and pop their heads out of the water, break open clams on their chest and treat themselves to a feast. Teddy-bear like in appearance, they are affectionately known as the “old men of the sea” because they grow silvery-gray with age and develop long whiskers that resemble moustaches.

Yet the iconic Alaska creature has found itself at the center of increasingly tense discussions between Alaska Native hunters and artists, politicians and law enforcement officers.

Some hunters as well as fur and skin artists say the rules for harvesting and sale aren’t entirely clear, and enforcement is heavy-handed. As a result, they live in fear of getting busted for unintentional mistakes. Meanwhile, fisherman can’t out-compete the voracious sea weasels, which like to dine on crab, abalone, sea urchin and just about any other shellfish or mollusk they can get the furry paws on. Hunters and artists want the freedom to pursue their work stress-free, and fisherman would like to see more sea otters killed.

U.S. Rep. Don Young has proposed a law that could address both problems. He wants to allow the sale of sea otter pelts to non-natives, which is currently banned. It’s win-win, according to Young, who described the legislation as a predator control measure that should also expand economic opportunities for Alaska Natives. If passed, it would also eliminate a federal crime – the sale of sea otter pelts to non-natives – that has sent Alaskans to prison and fined others.

On Thursday, the 37-member board of the Alaska Federation of Natives offered a draft resolution generally supporting Young’s legislation amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, but only if it eliminates the sale of pelts and includes Alaska Native entities as managers and regulators.

Friday, Alaska Native hunter and skin sewer Christy Ruby took breaks from manning her craft table on the first floor of the Anchorage convention center to wander about on a one-woman mission against Young’s legislation. In a strange twist of fate, her craft booth is directly across the aisle from a string of tables comprising Congressional row, staffed by employees of Alaska’s three delegates. Young’s staff occupies the table closest to Ruby, who is displaying mittens, ornaments, scarves and purses made from seals and sea otters.

Ruby gave her pitch to any artist that would listen, leaving behind a copy of the bill and her statement about its impact: “If Natives harvest the sea otters and they are able to sell the unique, rare hides to furriers for $1,000 a hide, there will be no reason to make handicrafts. Furriers will then make handicrafts, coats, purses, etc., to sell throughout the U.S. and possibly export. This legislation turns Native subsistence harvesting into a commercial business.”

Ruby also warns of a public relations nightmare that might ensue. “We will also get the negative publicity similar to Nunavut, “clubbing seals” when we commercially hunt cute sea otters,” she wrote in her handout.

A better idea would be to allow Alaska Natives to export their handicrafts, she said.

Ever-present fear

Just what, exactly, it will take for Native artisans to maintain their livelihoods touches on many aspects of the hunting and craft-making trade.  Who decides whether a pelt is altered enough to be considered a craft legal for sale? Are officers regulating such matters acting fairly?

In a resolution distributed Thursday, the AFN board openly underscored the adversarial relationship brewing between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages sea otters, and the Native community, stating that “Alaska Natives have been subjected to overzealous law enforcement and entrapment practices.”

“Our biggest issue right now is that we don’t know the rules. There’s no warning. They go to your house, confiscate your items and then it’s ‘see you in court,’” Ruby said. “One confiscation can ruin your life.”

Ruby has seen friends get caught up in investigations. And recently, seal pelts she had sent to a tannery in Idaho were confiscated – scooped up by the feds during a federal investigation into Moyle Mink & Tannery related to the illegal trafficking of wildlife.

 Although Ruby is adamant she did nothing wrong – her pelts were registered and tagged as required by law – she hasn’t been able to get her pelts back, let alone find out whether they are being properly cared for while under federal seizure.

Then there are a growing string of Alaskans, Native and non-Native, who have found themselves busted at the hands of the feds.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has said it’s merely enforcing the rules.

“The USFWS-OLE (office of law enforcement) considers the illegal take and commercialization of marine mammal species to be a law-enforcement priority,” Stan Pruszenski, Special Agent in Charge of the agency’s law enforcement arm said in 2010 after the sentencing of a man charged in a conspiracy to illegally kill and sell sea otters on the open market.

Craig resident Douglas Linn Smith was handed a one year prison term.

“The investigation started as a response to a concerned citizen’s tip that led to a two-year undercover operation into the illegal commercialization of sea otters, seals, and sea lions, all of which are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said about Smith’s conviction and the ongoing investigation. “During the undercover operation, agents documented the illegal take of sea otters, the illegal sale of their pelts, and the failure to record and report harvest data as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”

A year earlier, in 2009, another Craig resident, Christopher Rowland, was sentenced to three years in prison on similar, though more excessive charges. TheUSFWS explained at the time that the agency “documented the illegal take of approximately 75 sea otters, and the illegal sale of 6 sea otter pelts and several skulls. Two of the illegal takes were spring born pups, described by the defendant as ‘micro-babies.’ Statements made by the defendant to undercover officers indicated the defendant was only just getting started and had plans to market 40-50 hides per month to a broker in Korea.” 

A village police officer from Sitka who worked at the Baranof Island community’s tannery is the most recent person to go to prison. People who know or know of Michael E. Smith’s criminal entanglement are angered at how the investigation occurred. The version of events circulating among Alaskans unhappy with the situation is that Fish and Wildlife agents spent nine months befriending Smith, including dinners at his home, only to talk him into selling two otter pelts for $800. They then allegedly refused to take the pelts in person and asked Smith to send them through the mail.

He received a sentence of six months in prison, to be followed by a year of supervised release during which, Smith, an Alaska Native, will be prohibited from hunting or selling marine mammals or marine mammal products.

In July, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said that Smith’s conviction resulted from “a year and a-half undercover investigation conducted against illegal sea otter hunting and trafficking in Southeast Alaska, Anchorage and Fairbanks. The investigation has documented numerous individuals involved in the illegal activity and to date.”

Fear of doing something wrong has crippled hunters and artists from pursuing their trade, said Sitka tugboat captain, hunter and sewer Mike Miller, chair of the Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals.  He made the remarks Wednesday at a meeting organized by Ruby and a Cordova man looking to get into the tanning business. The Alaska Native Tanner’s Association called the meeting to work through the issues facing marine mammal hunters and artisans.

“For the groups that I represent, I am going to be as abrasive to law enforcement as I can,” Miller told the small group. “I don’t see the answer in playing nice with law enforcement at this point.”

The hard attitude stems from frustrations that the rules are too vague, that people can’t get clear direction from the agency about what’s allowable, and a perception that individual law enforcement agents have too much discretion in determining exactly what’s a crime.

When he asked USFWS why the agency didn’t better educate people about the laws prior to the 2008 sting operations, Miller said he was told it was because then people would know the law and the operation would be weakened. He likened the situation to police removing stop signs from a city street then arresting drivers for running the stop sign.

“What I want to avoid is being ashamed of being an artist, being afraid to let people know that I am killing otters, that I am killing seals,” said Jason Borer, who has plans to open a tannery in Cordova.

“Don’t be ashamed of being someone that goes out and kills these cute little creatures, because there’s guys out there that go out and kill big bucks and post it all over YouTube,” Ruby chimed in. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of what we used to be doing for 10,000 years.”

Who gets to say whether art is legal?

An anxiety among people who turn sea otter and seal pelts into handicrafts is whether the work their doing could be considered illegal.

Under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it is “illegal to sell, trade or barter marine mammal parts in their natural unaltered form to a non-Native.” Only “authentic Native handicrafts” may be sold to non-Natives, defined – some would argue vaguely -- as items that are “significantly altered from their natural form.”

That tension drew an artist from Juneau who has recently moved to New Mexico to pursue a more contemporary edge to her work to drop in on the tanner’s association meeting. Shaaxsaani (who goes by the single name) makes bracelets and clothing, and had concerns about whether the style of manufacturing she prefers could get her in trouble.

She carries a raw-edged, tanned sea otter pelt for use as a baby blanket. She makes dresses out of whole seal hide, cutting out the flippers to make arm holes, then lacing the pelt up in the back to close the garment.   

“That edge, that beautiful, original edge is the desirable part for what I do,” she said.

Members of the group cautioned it might be risky, to which she asked “I couldn’t just prove that I wear it that way?”

Fish and Wildlife has said drawing on the back of a pelt isn’t enough to make it legal for sale. Cut edges would be, since fur cuffs for clothing are allowed, according to Ruby. Ruby also suggested that Shaaxsaani might further protect her designs from enforcement action by adding a liner or backing to the inside of the dresses.

Unlike Shaaxsaani’s organically designed baby blanket, Ruby makes hers by cutting straight edges and attaching linings to them. But many artists, leery of getting into trouble, have shied away from making blankets.

The basic guideline for crafts made from marine mammals is that the end product not be something from which the original, unaltered item can be reconstituted. Such measures are meant to provide the trafficking of raw marine mammal parts.

An abundance of sea otters?

Lurking in the background of the discussion about how Alaska Natives can lawfully harvest and market sea otters, is the emergence of sea otters in southeast Alaska as a nuisance to fisherman.

While the critters delight tourists and Alaskans alike, not so delightful are the tales fishermen have about the animals’ huge appetites.

“They eat every piece of shellfish they can get their hands on,” said Julianne Curry, director of the Petersburg Vessel Owners Association, a fishermen’s organization that is supportive of Young’s efforts.

Sea otters are unique marine mammals in that they don’t have any body fat and rely on entirely on their extraordinarily dense fur to keep insulated and warm. They eat up about 25 percent of their body weight per day. With the otters weighing anywhere from 30 to 100 pounds, that adds up quickly.

The way the association describes it, roving groups of hungry otters are capable of wiping out entire sections of fishing grounds, eating until there’s nothing left to eat, before moving on.

From Curry’s perspective, interpretations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that require an artist to have to turn a pelt into a handicraft before sale to a non-native creates a “significant barrier” to Alaska Native hunters. The logic is, fewer restrictions will mean greater harvest – more otters killed and therefore less pressure on the shellfish commercial, sport and subsistence fisherman would like to get to first.

Young plans on holding a hearing in Congress next week on the subject. In the meantime, the tense relationship between the investigators, hunters and artists is one that all sides agree have to be worked on.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com