Southeast Alaska’s sea otters were driven to near-extinction by the fur trade in the early 20th century. But since they were reintroduced to the region in the 1960s, their numbers have grown considerably.
Sea otters are a keystone species, protecting vital kelp beds, but they also prey on crab and clams that make up lucrative fisheries. They’re protected by federal law, and only certain Alaska Native people can hunt them.
But as otter populations have grown, so have calls to loosen the strict federal rules protecting them. And that has some artists and hunters concerned.
Christy Ruby stands in her studio on the north end of Ketchikan, next to a table piled high with soft blue, red and purple sea otter pelts. These are her bestselling colored sea otter, and since 2017, she’s used the dyed fur in her traditional handicrafts. Ruby sells her creations online and through social media. She’s also set up at several local craft events over the years.
“I use them sparingly because it costs twice or three times as much to have them dyed that color,” she said.
She explained the rich colors are what make her creations unique. She’s grateful for her ability to hunt the animals. But Ruby is worried that efforts to reform sea otter management could jeopardize her business and traditional creations.
To be clear, scientists aren’t sure that otters are overpopulated in Southeast Alaska. There are now more than 25,000 spread throughout the panhandle, and one 2019 study estimated that the region’s ecosystems could support three times as many.
But that hasn’t stopped efforts to reduce their numbers. Ketchikan’s Borough Assembly recently took the topic to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and asked for control of the federally managed species to be turned over to the state, or for current regulations to change.
It’s not the first time the issue has come up. Petersburg’s assembly called for higher harvests in 2018. The late congressman Don Young attempted to make it easier to sell intact hides. Proponents say that increasing sea otter hunting would help bolster lucrative shellfish fisheries.
But Ruby says those changes won’t fix the problem — at least, not without putting her traditional work at risk. She says state control of otter hunting could result in more red tape preventing her from creating her work. Ruby says that she’s been frustrated for years by how the Marine Mammal Protection Act — the 1972 law informing how sea otters are managed — is written. She and nearly two dozen other otter hunters met with federal officials in the early 2010s to clarify ambiguities in the federal law, and Ruby says she’s concerned that the state management could put up new roadblocks.
“The state will get funding and they’ll have areas where they’ll close off to even Natives won’t be able to hunt that area because they say there’s a lack of otters there, which, you know, you cannot track an otter — they move all the time,” Ruby said.
She’s worried about allowing non-Native hunters to kill sea otters. That’s against the law under the MMPA. If the rules are relaxed, Ruby said she thinks hunters will flood the market with hides and lower the value of the traditional work she creates.
“They’ll turn them into coats and all this stuff that they want to do, and our crafts will be gone,” she said. “Because we don’t have the ability to pay that much money for what the hunters will get for that hide.”
She’s also worried about backlash: If sea otter pelts become a widely traded commercial commodity, she said she’s concerned that could spark calls for hunting to be banned outright.
Will Ware, a Tlingit artist who lives in Petersburg, also opposes opening sea otter hunts to non-Native people. He said there are simpler solutions, starting with the MMPA itself.
The law currently requires hunters to be at least one-fourth coastal Alaska Native by blood quantum. He says he’d like to allow any enrolled tribal member to hunt. For example, in Ketchikan, that would allow anyone enrolled with Ketchikan Indian Community to hunt sea otters.
“I think you would see a lot more otters being harvested each year — that would be low-hanging fruit that would immediately make a difference,” Ware said.
Ware also thinks that the rules should change to allow the exportation of tanned hides and handicrafts to Canada. Neither is currently allowed under federal law. He said Tlingit and Haida people have been sending goods through that route for years.
“If we had our congressional delegation start working with our counterparts in Canada, which were traditional trade routes of our Tlingit and our Haida people,” that would be ideal, Ware said.
Jeremiah James, an artist based in Yakutat, also has an issue with marketing laws. Some of his pieces have sold for around $1,000, but he can’t reach a wider market.
“And it’s one thing to sell it in the country to each other,” James said. “But we’re just passing money back and forth, and that’s not how you create wealth.”
He also agrees that non-Native people shouldn’t be allowed to kill sea otters. He said laxer rules could allow businesses to squeeze out Alaska Native artists.
“When people talk about opening it up to more people, all I see is another thing that’s being taken away from my people,” he said.
But Ware, the Petersburg artist, said he sympathizes with crabbers and dive fishermen who say that higher otter populations are weighing on fisheries. He emphasized that he doesn’t want to pit fishermen and Native hunters and artists against each other.
“We sense the frustration,” he said. “Alaska Natives utilize the shrimp and crab as part of our subsistence foods, and our traditional and customary foods for millennia. We don’t want to see the crab or shrimp disappearing any more than anyone else.”
Back in her brightly lit studio, surrounded by fur-draped mannequins and old sewing machines, Ruby, the Ketchikan artist, said she agrees. She thinks the answer lies in more aggressive support for Native hunters, and maybe even more communication with crabbers and fishermen about where they’re seeing the sea otters move.
“It’s a no-brainer when it comes to actually making something happen,” she said. “But we just don’t get the full cooperation from everybody.”
The bottom line, she explained, is that policymakers concerned about the impacts of otter populations should focus their efforts on increasing the capacity of existing hunters and craftspeople. She suggested a Southeast Alaska tannery, for instance, would allow her to process more hides and cut down on considerable shipping costs.
“There’s no tannery — quality tannery — here,” she said. “We have a few tanneries, but they don’t put out the quality that people really want to use.”
She said hunters, crabbers and dive fishermen have the same goal — and they should work together.
Raegan Miller is a Report for America corps member for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at KRBD.org/donate.