The rights of Alaska Natives to pursue these and other traditional uses of marine mammals have been recognized and safeguarded under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) since that law was passed in 1972. Although recent Service investigations involving sea otters have focused on illegal harvest and unlawful trafficking in whole sea otter pelts, some Alaska Natives have expressed concerns about agency interpretations of what constitutes significantly altered. Federal regulations require that an authentic native handicraft or article of clothing be significantly altered from its natural state in order to be legal for sale to non-Natives.
“We’re taking our outreach, which has included answering direct questions from individual artisans about their products, a step further,” said Regional Director Geoffrey Haskett. “We want to work with those whose livelihoods involve sea otters to clarify guidance, particularly with respect to handicrafts.”
To this end, the Service has begun a process to bring Service marine mammal and law enforcement program managers together for open dialog with Alaska Native hunters, Alaska Native artisans, and Alaska Natives who both harvest and make handicrafts or clothing from sea otters.
“The Service respects and upholds the rights of Alaska Natives to utilize sea otters for traditional purposes, including the sale of handicrafts,” said Special Agent in Charge Stan Pruszenski, who oversees Service law enforcement operations in Alaska. “In our investigations, we look for individuals who infringe on those rights and ignore the law for commercial gain. Such profiteering threatens both sea otter conservation and cultural traditions.”
“Our priority is to stop unlawful take and commercialization of whole pelts,” said Pruszenski.
“We encourage artisans to consult with us if they have questions or are confused about what significantly altered means with respect to their wares,” said Pruszenski. “Both our investigations and the upcoming workshop are intended to support, not hinder, Alaska Native traditions, cultural expression, and livelihoods.”
Logo courtesy U.S Fish and Wildlife Service