Senator Bert Stedman of Sitka, Alaska, has filed a bill proposing to place a $100 bounty on sea otters. It seems the popular sea mammal has reproduced to the point that its population is considered out of control. The Republican Senator claims that the cute, cuddly creatures could be responsible for the loss of millions of dollars to the seafood industry.
As of 2012, it is estimated that there are 21,500 sea otters in Southeast Alaska, up significantly from previous years. In his support statement Stedman writes that the expanding number of sea otters is devastating the shellfish biomass.
That’s why Senator Stedman says he sponsored Senate Bill 60--as a proposed management tool, according to the Homer Tribune. The bill had its first hearing Wednesday in Juneau. Since it isn’t restricted to an area, the bill could impact other parts of Alaska.
“Sea otters are the only marine mammals without blubber,” Stedman writes. “As a result, the animals have a high metabolism and require large amounts of food to survive.”
It seems that sea otters have voracious appetites and expensive tastes. Stedman claims that the otters’ diet consists mainly of crabs, clams, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, shrimp and abalone.
Here’s why this is a problem, according to the Senator. One male otter can consume up to 7,300 pounds of food per year. Using an average body weight of 65 pounds and a daily food intake of 25 percent of body weight, a sea otter population of 21,500 animals will consume over 127 million pounds of shellfish per year, he estimates.
“To put that into perspective, the entire 2010 Southeast Alaska harvest in the dive and dungeness crab fisheries was 5.9 million pounds,” Stedman said in his sponsor statement.
If unchecked, the population “inevitably threatens the future of dive fisheries and crab fisheries in Southeast; jeopardizing hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in economic activity for the region,” he wrote. He also cites that in recent years, Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed 17 dive fishery harvest areas due to the shrinking biomass.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 removed marine mammals from the State of Alaska’s management, denying all but Alaska Natives the opportunity to harvest sea otters. In. 2012, only 842 otters were harvested in Southeast Alaska.
“In the absence of any realistic effort by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to provide a sustainable harvest management regime for sea otters, it is my intention through the introduction of SB 60 to incentivize the lawful harvest of sea otters by Alaska Natives to, at the very least, reach the potential biological removal target (2,800),” he said.
“The incentive will come in the form of a $100 bounty paid by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for every sea otter harvested.” The bill has a fiscal allotment of $28,000 to pay the bounties on that many animals.
However, even if the bill passes, it would be unenforceable under the federal law, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“If you look at the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it says no state law can be enforced that impacts a protected marine mammal,” Woods said. “There’s nothing to say they can’t pass the law. But it would be an illegal harvest. We would have to, by law, investigate any action.” Woods suspects there would have to be some court decision expected.
Since Alaska Natives are the only ones allowed to hunt otters, there wouldn’t be much difference except in the added incentive of the $100 bounty.
“This is serious. I try to put humor in it, because we all recognize they are cute cuddly animals in the water. It sounds Draconian at first but when you take a look at the impact of coastal Alaska, it’s a whole different outlook,” Stedman said.