Several Petersburg fishermen came out to support Senate Bill 60, implementing a $100 bounty on all sea otters taken legally under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Monday evening during the regular meeting of the Petersburg Borough Assembly.
The resolution that was proposed by the Assembly at the March 4 meeting was brought back to the table for discussion due to the interest of the residents and fishermen of the area.
Local commercial fisherman Max Worhatch was the first to step to the microphone.
“On the surface, this may seem like a bill to exterminate sea otters,” Worhatch said. “I look at it as a bill to protect Alaska's resources.”
Worhatch explained that dungeness crab, geoduck and sea cucumber are vital components of the Petersburg fishing fleet’s economic picture.
“This community has 91 dungeness crab permit holders living in it,” Worhatch stated. “This community, that is recognized throughout Southeast as a leading fishing port, should back any legislation that nurtures and protects the resources we rely on for both economic viability and food.”
Dave Thynes is a harvest diver and explains that he would like to protect his interests.
“I've seen areas where sea otters have been active and areas where they haven't been and it seems like the areas they haven't been are more diverse in bottom life than the craters and desolate areas that the sea otters have hit,” Thynes stated. “There is more here than the underlying dollar, this is something we really need to think about and I hope the Assembly will support this bill and move forward with some type of management plan to take care of the population.”
Andy Knight has been a commercial fisherman in Petersburg for 30 years and he has also seen the effect of the otter bloom in population.
“I urge the Assembly to support this bill, not only because of economics, but because of the subsistence lifestyle,” Knight said. “We are going to lose that lifestyle, and some areas are already lost. Lower Chatham is desolate for shellfish of all types. To this day, I swear, if Juneau was where Port Alexander is, there wouldn't be a sea otter issue, we would have dealt with it long ago.”
Mike Bangs arrived in Petersburg 30 years ago to dive commercially.
“I originally came up here as a commercial diver for abalone,” Bangs stated. “No one has mentioned abalone because they haven't been around for quite awhile. They are in a little dish that makes it easy for the otters to eat. The otters have completely wiped out any commercial quantities.”
Some members of the Assembly had questions about the lifecycle of the sea otter and how much the population was predicted to grow in the coming years.
“From what I have read, it is predicted that the population will grow at 20 percent per year,” Petersburg Borough Assembly member John Hoag stated. “That is a phenomenal growth rate.”
Hoag also stated that there is no question that the sea otters are causing some serious problems and will continue to cause degradation to the way of life and the fisheries.
“The problem I am facing is that this bill could be of questionable legality and could well be unconstitutional,” Hoag said. “Whatever we decide to do the feds would have to, at minimal, bless it in order for it to be legally viable.”
According to Hoag, Resolution 1958 which was passed by the former City of Petersburg in January of 2011 is fairly well written and could be readopted.
“The problem is that the remedy for this does not lie with the State,” Hoag said. “It lies with the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Whatever we can do, as an Assembly, is send a message to our delegates and ask the federal government to take a look at this and add a management program, but supporting a bill that will probably not ever be legally enforceable or have an effect, sends the wrong message.”
Petersburg Borough Assembly Mayor, Mark Jensen, is also a commercial fisherman in Petersburg and has seen the changes this problem has made in the fisheries he has been involved in.
“I fished crab for 21 years and sold out because I could see we weren't getting anywhere with the management of the otters,” Jensen said. “I think it is worth spending as much time as it takes to come up with strong ways to urge the government to do something.”
Petersburg Borough Assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter recommended that an ad hoc committee be formed to reevaluate and add a memorandum to Resolution 1958 in order to give it more weight with the Senate Bill 60 support.