By Bob Tkacz
As long-term federal efforts to clarify rules controlling use and sale of all legally harvested marine mammals slowly ramp up, Native organizations in Southeast Alaska are hoping their plans for commercial tanneries will result in a multi-fold increase in sea otter harvests as soon as this winter.
With quality finished pelts selling for upwards of $300 each and blankets or other items fetching five-figure prices, the initiatives could provide a desperately needed boost to village economies beside leaving more shellfish and other commercial and subsistence stocks for human use.
The five-year old commercial tannery run by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, which specializes in otter pelts, expects to double its capacity by the end of this year when expansion into facilities twice as large as its previous location are completed. To the south, four tribes recently established the Prince of Wales Sea Otter Commission. Their plan is to develop an otter “management plan” that would work with the Sitka tannery or build a separate operation of their own.
“Probably by 16 months from now we’ll be operational. We can probably start looking if there is an opportunity to harvest and get pelts done at the other tannery and we sell garments,” said Edward Sam Thomas, president of the Craig Community Association. The association is coordinating efforts of the federally recognized tribes there and from Klawock, Hydaburg and Kasaan.
Management and harvest of all marine mammals in the US is controlled by federal law. There are no season or bag limits on the healthy and growing population of sea otters in Southeast Alaska, where a few dozen were introduced in a highly successful revival effort by the state Dept. of Fish & Game decades ago.
The problem is that only tribal members may harvest sea otters and not even Natives can sell pelts or any other parts, unless they have been “significantly altered.” Native artisans and federal authorities have not been able to agree on what that means and the uncertainty has discouraged hunters from taking the field.
The National Marine Fisheries Service in Maryland is pulling together data, people and interest groups to address the large question of use of marine mammal parts, but the effort is in such an early stage that no timelines are available.
“It’s just a foundation. We haven’t really moved forward on anything yet,” said Stuart Cory, director of the enforcement operations division at the National Marine Fisheries Service headquarters in Maryland.
In June Cory was researching data and pulling together the working group of Native representatives, other stakeholders and wildlife managers. He emphasized that the working group will consider all marine mammals rather than focusing on sea otters and said even a final goal of the effort has not yet been determined. “My feeling is we’d try to get something to move forward to the decision-makers,” Cory said, June 21.
Thomas acknowledged that “other interest groups” will resist efforts to relax restrictions on sea otter harvesting but said the Craig Association isn’t planning to fight that battle.
“We’re not going to get a change in regulations to allow sales of raw pelts. One of our strategies is to go the other way and do what it says. Significantly alter [by selling] finished garments,” Thomas said in a June 23 interview.
Monthly meetings of the new otter commission have been ongoing since June to write the management plan, which Thomas indicated would work around “traditional boundaries” between tribal regions on Prince of Wales Island and could be completed by October.
“The plan is going to be management of the resource. Number one, try to get management level on sea otters, which are escalating at a high rate right now,” Thomas said. It could also include plans for replenishment of the high value stocks that otters are devouring and “management strategies for other resources beside sea otters,” he added.
Although research is ongoing, no management agency has new or good numbers on the impact of sea otters but there’s virtually no disagreement that the population is growing and costly to humans. Otters are furry gourmets, dining on Dungeness crab, sea urchins, cucumbers, abalone and geoduck.
A 2009 federal report, using aerial surveys conducted from 2002 to 2009 estimated the population at just under 9,000 critters in the panhandle, but they are also a problem in Prince William Sound. A 1994 federal management plan said, “Sea otters were implicated in the demise of the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fisheries in Orca Inlet and eastern Prince William Sound,” the report declared.
With two exceptions, annual statewide sea otter harvests have remained below 600 for the past 20 years, according to a March 4, 2011 US Fish & Wildlife Service sea otter tagging study. In 2010 the harvest was 601. In 1993 the harvest was 835 otters, but whatever the reason, the tally was unusual. In 1992 the take was 426, falling to 316 in 1994 and remained below 400 annually with only two exceptions until last year.
The total statewide harvest for the 1990-2010 period of the study was 7,392 otters.
Sitka has consistently been the most deadly community for otters over the long term, accounting for 205 of the 601 pelts tagged in 2010. Camille Ferguson, economic development director for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and manager of its tannery said production of finished hides peaked in 2007 at 370, dropping to 288 last year, partly due to the start of facility relocation.
“I would hope that by 2013 we are able to double capacity. I’m hoping that I have the remodel totally done by summer and everyone up and trained and ready to go,” Ferguson said. Output has been hobbled by a shortage of skilled tanners. “You can’t find people who worked in tanneries,” Ferguson said, June 23.
Other than intertribal bartering, the Sitka tannery has no retail sales, partly due to a shortage of skilled seamstresses, but Ferguson agreed with Thomas that there’s big money in otters.
Ferguson said quality pelts sell for as much as $500 and estimated that as many as 30 pelts could be needed to make a blanket. Thomas said the Prince of Wales project is likely to start by supplying pelts to the Sitka tannery but hopes to eventually include everything from harvesting to retail sales that could be the anchor for expanded tourism businesses.
Thomas estimated that as few as 70 pelts are taken annually by Prince of Wales trappers and suggested it could rise to 500 when the island project is fully developed. The federal study counted 2010 harvests of 39 pelts in Craig, 111 in Klawock and 41 in Ketchikan, but none in Kasaan or Hydaburg.
Bob Tkacz can be reached at email@example.com.