New bulletin for Alaska beachcombers on rights to marine mammal parts

August 18, 2017

beach with logs and a few people Kodiak Island beach. Photo by LCDR Mark Wetzler, NOAA Corps.

Beachcombers are drawn to items they find on the shore, and often can’t resist taking home a souvenir.

On Alaska beaches, marine mammal remains are often a prized target. Alaska Sea Grant’s Gay Sheffield knows first hand that people are unaware of their rights to beached animal parts.

“People don’t understand the legalities. It is so complex—it is very difficult to find an answer,” said Sheffield, Marine Advisory agent in Nome.

Sheffield researched the topic and created a two-page reference for Alaska residents, agencies and visitors—Collecting Dead Marine Mammal Parts While Beachcombing.

woman smiling Gay Sheffield

What matters are ethnicity, land ownership and the animal’s status under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Native Alaskans can salvage all parts of all dead marine mammals for subsistence purposes. Non-Native people can take only hard parts, such as bones, teeth, and ivory, and only from some animals—it depends on the different federal agencies authorized for each marine mammal species. In many cases, the takers must report their find within 30 days to the appropriate federal agency.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has jurisdiction for whales and seals and sea lions, while the US Fish and Wildlife Service has management authority over walruses, polar bears and sea otters. The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent unit of the federal government that oversees NMFS and USFWS on marine mammal issues, funded the beachcombing publication.

The bulletin will receive regular updating. For example, on September 30 Fish and Wildlife may change the walrus population status to to listing under the Endangered Species Act.

cover of publication

“The ringed seal will get changed before too long. All these statuses will be in flux soon mostly through litigation—not through population declines,” she said.

Sheffield has years of experience researching marine mammals. She is part of the Alaska Region Marine Mammal Stranding Network, a group that gathers information on dead marine mammals for national data depositories. To the network scientists, each dead marine mammal has a story to tell about the ocean.

“We have a shifting ecological environment and changing industrial environment. Each carcass is telling something—was it entangled with a fishing line? Is it a novel disease we’ve never seen before, does it have oil on it? People are eating these animals—the health of marine mammals is not solely a conservation issue but human health and food security issues as well.”

NMFS staff handed out earlier drafts of the beachcombing bulletin at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer, which were very popular. “I’m excited to see this get out to the public. I know it will be of interest to people,” Sheffield said.

— By Sue Keller

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.