News: March 23, 2009

Steller Sea Lion Biosampling Pilot Project
Marine Mammal Handicraft Discussions - What is Significantly Altered?
TASSC Comments on the Proposed Rule to Designate SW AK Sea Otter Critical Habitat
Sea Lion Research Findings
Silverhand Program Revisions

Steller Sea Lion Biosampling Program Pilot Project

Through a cooperative agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, we are working to develop a Steller Sea Lion Biosampling Pilot Project. We are in the process of getting the biosampling protocols and Guide reviewed by sea lion biologists and researchers. Later this spring, we plan to hold a biosampling training and work with those trained to test, refine and finalize the protocol. To learn more about the program, please see our Steller Sea Lion Biosampling Page or contact us at


Marine Mammal Handicraft Discussions - What is Significantly Altered?

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 provides that marine mammals can be harvested by coastal Alaska Natives for subsistence or or creating and selling authentic Native handicraft. The Act describes handicraft to be:

  "...items composed wholly or in some significant respect of natural materials, and which are produced, decorated, or fashioned in the exercise of traditional native handicrafts without the use of pantographs, multiple carvers, or other mass copying devices. Traditional native handicrafts include, but are not limited to weaving, carving, stitching, sewing, lacing, beading, drawing and painting; ..."

When regulations were developed to implement the Act, a provision that handicrafts must be "significantly altered" was included in the regulations. There is no further description as to what this means. In practice, this means that determining what this means is often done on a case-by-case basis.

A number of artisans have come to TASSC and other Alaska Native Organizations asking for clarification as to what "significantly altered" means. TASSC will be discussing this issue at its next Board Meeting and on into the future.

This is a complex issue and a solution will not be found overnight. If you have any thoughts, insights or concerns with this issue, please contact our office or your Regional Commissioner(s) to discuss this further. We very much value your input and would like your thoughts on this matter.


TASSC Comments on the Proposed Rule to designate SW AK Sea Otter Critical Habitat

We submitted a formal request to the USFWS that the comment period on the Proposed Rule to designate sea otter critical habitat in SW Alaska be extended and that hearings be held on the matter in Anchorage, Chignik Lagoon, Kodiak and Unalaska-Dutch Harbor. USFWS responded via letter dated 4 February 2009, and our request that the comment period be extended was denied due to timing in a court ordered settlement. In the letter, they indicated that they are working on the Economic Analysis and anticipate that on 1 June 2009, they will publish a Notice of Availability in the Federal Register for that Economic Analysis. They will reopen the comment period for an additional 30-days and expect that at least one hearing will be held.

On 17 February 2009, we submitted formal comments for the record on the proposed rule to designate sea otter critical habitat. They can be found here.

We were of course disappointed about the response to our request to extend the comment period and are encouraging the Service to revisit their decision and to reopen the comment period. Please contact us if you have any questions or would like additional information.

We will update this as soon as more information is available.


Sea Lion Research Findings

New information continues to emerge about Steller sea lion status, ecology, and behavior, which helps to provide a more complete understanding of the species. This is important so that sound decisions can be made that support the continued survival of sea lions and maximize their chances of recovery.

Population Trends
Sea lion are surveyed on a regular basis. These include pup surveys which have been conducted by land, ship and more recently, by air. Non-pups, or the adults and juvenile sea lions, are surveyed by air.

Researchers at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center at the National Marine Mammal Lab (NMML) have completed their analysis of the 2008 non-pup aerial surveys, which was the first complete survey of the Western stock since 2004, located from Cape Elias (between Cordova and Yakutat) west to Attu Island, and since 2002 for the Eastern stock, located from Cape Elias south to California.

Results from the 2008 survey indicate a stable or slightly declining adult and juvenile population from 2004 to 2008 for the Western stock, with considerable regional variation in population trend. Prior to that, from 2000-2004, the Western stock was increasing at approximately 3% per year (the only increase since the 1970’s).
Recent Regional Trends for the Western Stock (2004-2008):

  • Consistent increases in the Eastern Aleutian Islands (+7%)
• Relatively high rates of decline in the central and Western Aleutian Islands (-16% and -30% respectively)
• Central and Western Gulf of Alaska increased between 2004 and 2007, with slight declines from 2007 to 2008
• Increases in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska (35%, likely due to sea lions from Southeast Alaska in the Eastern stock coming over).

The Eastern stock of Steller sea lions has increased considerably over the last 30 years. Fewer sea lions were counted in the 2008 survey, but the survey was conducted approximately one month earlier than surveys had been conducted in the past. Based on factors such as the location of the increases in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska and increasing pup production trends for SE AK, it is possible that SE animals were foraging in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska, and were thereby missed when the Eastern stock survey was conducted.

1. The Memo for the Record on the 2008 survey results, see:

Have Sea Lion Birth Rates Dropped?
Recent analyses by Holmes, Fritz, York and Sweeney (2007) indicate long-term declines in birth rates of the Western Steller sea lion. They used age-structured modeling of sea lions from the Central Gulf of Alaska with varying vital rates and fit the results to observations and population trends of that region over a 28-year period (1976 to 2004.) This region was used because it was the only region with pre-decline fecundity and age-structure data.

The best fit model results show a steady drop in Central Gulf of Alaska birth rates from 1976 to 2004, and that it was “36% lower than in the 1970’s.” Likewise, adult and juvenile survivorship were low in the 1980’s, but later recovered by the late 1990’s. The model indicated that “In the 1980’s, declines were driven by low juvenile and adult surviorship, but by the late 1990’s, survivorship recovered and continued declines and lack of recovery were caused by low birth rate.”
The results of the model were compared against independent field study data, which corresponds with the best-fit model results. Age patterns seen in the Central Gulf of Alaska are also seen in the Western Gulf of Alaska and Eastern Aleutians, suggesting these regions may also be experiencing reduced birth rates.

Nutritional stress, contaminants and disease are the main factors known to affect female reproduction in pinnipeds. More information on female reproductive status is needed, but the results of this study indicate that maintaining the adult breeding population is necessary for continued population stability, but also that increasing birth rates is important for the long-term recovery of the Western stock.

2. Holmes, E.E., et al. 2007. Age-structured modeling reveals long-term declines in the natality of Western Steller sea lions. Ecol. Apps. 17(8) 2214-2232. (Please contact us if you would like a copy of the study.)


Silverhand Program Revisions

The Silver Hand Program administered by the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA) has undergone some revisions. In the 2007-2008 legislative session, Senators Stevens (Kodiak) and Hoffman (Bethel) introduced Senate Bill 97 (SB97). SB97 passed both the Alaska State Senate and House. It was signed into law by the Governor on April 10, 2008, with changes effective July 9, 2008.

One of the most significant change to the program is that the blood quantum requirement to participate in the program has been removed. Prior law required an artist to be 1/4 Indian, Aleut or Eskimo blood to be eligible to participate in the Silver Hand Program. This has been removed and eligibility to participate in the program is based being a citizen of the State of Alaska (eligible for a PFD), and a member of an Alaska Native tribe. Only Alaska Native artists are eligible under the program. Another significant change is that contemporary artists are now eligible. Likewise, art pieces containing contemporary materials are now eligible for inclusion under the program. In addition, the Agent tier of the program has been retired; services must be provided directly through the artist.

If you would like additional information, please contact the Alaska State Council on the Arts, Silver Hand program for additional information. Their website is located at:




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