Sea otters could be facing a $100 bounty on their adorable little heads if a Republican Senator has his way in Alaska, where eating is evidently a capital offense.
Senator Bert Stedman just introduced a bill, SB 60, which would authorize the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to pay a bounty to “harvest” sea otters and comes with a fiscal note for $28,000 to pay for the first year, which would only pay for a fraction of the 2,800 sea otters targeted.
The fact that sea otters are cute doesn’t really matter when it comes to looking at the bigger picture, both ecologically and economically, and in this case legally.
Stedman’s arguing that the population of sea otters is growing out of control and that they will cause millions in damage to the shellfish industry in Southeast Alaska, according to the Homer Tribune.
Unfortunately for Stedman, sea otters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which gives the federal government regulatory authority and prohibits them from being killed, with an exception that allows Alaska Natives the right to subsistence hunts.
“If you look at the Marine Mammal Protection Act, it says no state law can be enforced that impacts a protected marine mammal,” said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “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.”
Some sea otters in the state are also still listed as endangered, which has raised concerns over bounty hunters taking those, instead of the intended target population.
Those who want to see a smaller population of sea otters are also overlooking how their disappearance will cost in other ways. The McDowell Group, a research and consulting firm, estimated that between 1995 and 2011 commercial fishermen in Southeast Alaska lost $22.4 million to sea-otter predation, or $1.7 million per year, but that’s nothing compared to what tourism brings in.
According to the Alaska Dispatch:
The consultants pooh-poohed the idea that anyone would be willing to pay to see sea otters. “Willingness-to-pay” estimates are “theoretical,” they sniffed. Really? So all the hoopla about tourists, and even Alaskans, paying a premium for charters and guides to show them sea otters, whales, and other wildlife in Southeast Alaska is just a myth?
We know that the McDowell Group knows better because they also wrote a report for the Alaska Wilderness League, another paying customer, that estimated total visitor-related spending by nonresidents in Southeast Alaska in 2010-11, with multiplier effects added, was $360 million . Wildlife viewing accounted for 42 percent of nonresident visitor activities, or about $151 million of the total spent.
This figure is 89 times the payroll generated by sea urchins, geoducks, and other marine invertebrates harvested by dive fishermen. Although the McDowell Group didn’t prioritize which wildlife species were most popular with visitors, charismatic animals like sea otters drive the wildlife-viewing industry .
So if Stedman’s bill goes into effect, for every $100 paid in bounties, the state (or the commercial fishing industry) should be willing to pay another $19,900 to the visitor industry in Southeast Alaska to fully compensate for the loss of each sea otter.
A manhunt for sea otters could also end up hurting coastlines. As predators, they play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ecosystem by controlling other species, such as sea urchins that could otherwise take over kelp beds, which are vital to the survival of number of other species and help keep coastal erosion in check.
Stedman has completely failed here at trying to balance the cost to one small industry against the cost of a bounty program on sea otters, the environment, tourism and general public. Hopefully, this bill will die and won’t end up tying up courts if Alaska tries to get management authority back.
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