Sea Otter Management Committee re-vamps resolution
The Ad Hoc Sea Otter Management Committee has met twice to discuss ways to enhance or amend Resolution 1958, which was originally adopted in January 2011, to encourage support managing the exploding sea otter population in southeast Alaska.
“I believe this resolution states things pretty well,” Committee Chair and Petersburg Borough Assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter said. “I think we can take this and add to it or amend it and use it as a model for what we want to say.”
Friday afternoon the committee scoured over information in the US Fish and Wildlife Conservation Plan as well as fishery statistics for this area. Each committee member took this information with them to study that afternoon to come back with some solutions Tuesday afternoon.
Committee member and commercial fisherman Andy Knight suggested the addition of two paragraphs to the resolution stating: Whereas the US Fish and Wildlife Service failed to obtain any of its objectives stated in its Conservation Plan for the sea otter dated June 1994 and has yet to manage the exploding population,
Therefore, be it resolved that Petersburg Borough Assembly requests that the State of Alaska petition the federal government to relinquish sea otter management to the State to be managed in accordance to Article 8 of our State Constitution.
Knight stated that he would like to see Petersburg's Assembly and every community in Southeast Alaska send something like this to the governor and every representative and senator.
“I have two reasons for these additions,” Knight said. “First, they have had 19 years to do something and if a service provider was given 19 years and couldn't obtain his objective, I would fire him. Second, who of us here, don't think that we and the 3,200 people in this borough would have better luck being heard in Juneau than we have of being heard by a faceless bureaucrat 2,800 miles away that really doesn't care what's happening to us?”
Suggestions that the otter be removed from the Endangered Species Act were also brought to the table along with the request for a clearer definition of significantly altered hides.
“I feel we will get more traction with this if we stick to defining the significantly altered reference,” Committee member and Petersburg Vessel Owners Association Director Bryan Lynch said. “Do you really want to get forceful with this, or do you really want to do something that will gain some traction with the government?”
The question of science and sustainable population for the otter was also a concern for some committee members.
“I, personally, would like for us to make sure, no matter what direction we take, that our decision be based on strong science and split between districts and not market driven,” committee member and commercial fisherman Joan Koutzer said. “I would like to see good population estimates for different areas, I'd like to see what the biologists feel is a sustainable take and I'd like to see what the baseline population is that we wish to sustain without hunting. In the past, we lost our otters because of market driven hunting and we don't want that to happen again.”
Each member of the committee agreed that eradication of the otter is not the objective, they only want proper management in order to maintain the fisheries that have not been devastated by the otters.
“If we want to affect any meaningful change and possibly hold on to a fishery or our subsistence availability, we need to shift our conversation to a group of people that will listen to us on the state level,” Knight said.
Lynch explained that he believed that 80 percent of the population of otters could be harvested and they would still be able to sustain.
“I truly believe the viable resources have pretty much been destroyed,” Lynch stated. “I have been underwater in these areas and the devastation is amazing. I think it is probably too late in a lot of areas.”
The word disaster turned the conversation in another direction.
“I think we are at a point where we should get the governor to declare a disaster,” committee member and commercial fisherman John Jensen said. “It wouldn't make any of us feel any better and I won't be able to go out and do my commercial fishing the way I like to do, but it is another point we need to explore.”
Jensen went on to explain that the fishermen in this area are maybe 10 years from the total eradication of shellfish to the sea otters limits.
“They will die off and it will cycle back around,” Jensen stated. “But, it won't cycle around for us, our fishing life is over. Even if we reduce them back to the 400 that were initially reintroduced, in our lifetime, we will not see viable fisheries.”
Koutzer suggested a reduction in permits and asked if that would make for viable fishing in these areas.
“I think it is just over,” Lynch stated. “We have to deal with the otters, period. I don't believe there were commercially viable populations of any shellfish prior to the Russians eradicating the sea otters. I'm not defending eradicating sea otters, but we reintroduced something into an altered eco-system and to reintroduce something like that, a predator, is not going to work, it will put someone out of business and the shellfish harvesters are pretty much out of business.”
Lynch also explained that a statement has to be made and it will need to be a very strong one.
“They have had 19 years to do something and they haven't,” Lynch said. “They are still researching the sustainable population. When exactly are they going to get that? At a growth rate of 12 to 13 percent per year we are going to have 50,000 sea otters around here.”
Most of the members around the table spoke of the hope for the ability to fish for the coming generations.
“I feel, as a commercial crabber, that it is no longer financially viable,” Knight said. “I go out and do it for two weeks, because that is what I have always done, but it is just gone. Hopefully my grandchildren will have the opportunity but for all intents and purposes, it's over.”
Knight suggested that a form of predator control program could recover a fishery or two in the next five or six years.
“There has been nothing done for 19 years and look where we are,” Knight said. “We need to do something to save our lifestyles and our economies. If we want our kids to have a future, we need the State of Alaska to help us help ourselves because the federal government has been just giving us lip service.”
Additions and amendments were suggested around the table and a new resolution will be brought before the Petersburg Borough Assembly on Monday, April 15, at its regular meeting.