Subsistence users say feds aren’t investing enough in marine mammal research in Alaska

Walruses gathered by the tens of thousands in September 2013 to rest on the shores of the Chukchi Sea near the coastal village of Point Lay, Alaska. (Ryan Kingsbery/USGS)

The Indigenous People’s Council for Marine Mammals met in Anchorage this month for a two-day meeting that included federal scientists from agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

IPCoMM members said that the federal agencies aren’t doing enough to manage marine mammal populations and subsistence resources across the state.

“It’s 100% a lack of funding and a lack of staffing on the government’s part, said Chugach Regional Resource Commission Marine Mammal Manager Raven Cunningham.

Cunningham said that stock assessments for subsistence resources and population surveys on sea otters haven’t happened in over a decade. In her region, which includes Lower Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound, a once-threatened sea otter population is now thriving. That’s having big impacts on the shellfish people gather for food.

“So, when we look at our take, as subsistence users, we can’t look at how that’s affecting the population or whether we need to take more or less,” Cunningham said.

That was news to U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, the only member of Alaska’s congressional delegation who attended the meeting. He said that federal management agencies are supposed to be counting animals, like sea otters, regularly.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to be doing that already,” Sullivan said. “Where the funding can be a little challenging is for these commissions.”

IPCoMM is made up of 18 marine mammal commissions and councils from across the state, and they all receive federal funding. But Sullivan said that getting his colleagues in Congress to fund those groups is an uphill battle.

“Those are just such unique, Alaska-oriented issues that you gotta make the case with your colleagues,” Sullivan said.

Ben Payenna of Nome sits on the Alaska Nannut Co-Management Council, which represents 15 Alaska Native tribes that harvest polar bears for subsistence.

“We have all these different groups, and without the proper funding it feels like we’re just being checked off as a government function,” Payenna said.

Payenna said that IPCoMM members want to create effective and cooperative management plans but they don’t even have the basics, like a population count for the wildlife they want to manage.

“If we don’t have the funding to do it, we just can’t,” Payenna said.“ That gets a little bit frustrating when we are meeting to serve a purpose but then we can’t fulfill our duties.”

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service declined to comment, but during IPCoMM’s meeting a scientist with the agency said they were “out of money for just about anything.” He told IPCoMM members that funding for things like population surveys and stock assessments would have to come from Congress.

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