A debate over the meaning of “significantly altered” has ended with little change.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday released a new definition for that term as it applies to Native handicrafts using sea otter fur. The release ends months of sometimes-heated debate that generated more than 110,000 letters and comments to Fish and Wildlife.

The words “significantly altered” are a key component of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which defines how sea otter fur can be used in Alaska Native handicrafts sold to non-Natives.

Since 1974, Fish and Wildlife service has permitted the sale of items “that are composed wholly or in some significant respect of natural materials and are significantly altered from their natural form. …”

The meaning of those two words is the boundary between legal and illegal. The new definition sets the boundary at stitching and lining. In a pair of examples released by Fish and Wildlife, a sea otter scarf with a sewn lining is acceptable. A scarf without stitching and no lining is not acceptable.

A blanket using multiple otter skins stitched together is acceptable, but a cape made from an uncut, unlined sea otter pelt is unacceptable.

“There's just been over the years … there has been expressions from Alaska Native hunters and artisans that the term ‘significantly altered’ was a little vague,” said Andrea Medeiros, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife.

In October, Fish and Wildlife held a workshop to hear from Natives who wanted clearer rules from the federal government. Fish and Wildlife turned that input into a draft description and opened the door to comments.

What followed was a storm from conservationists who feared Fish and Wildlife was opening the back door for wider hunting.

Their argument: A looser definition of “significantly altered” would widen the market for sea otter fur, thus encouraging Natives to take more otters.

Some, including a group billing itself Friends of the Sea Otter, saw commercial fishing as the hidden hand behind a new definition. “In addition to the likely result of the increased take of sea otters, there is strong evidence that this proposal is intended to be used as a means to reduce sea otter populations in areas where the species competes with commercial fisheries for shellfish,” Friends of the Sea Otter wrote in a letter to Fish and Wildlife.

The city of Craig backed the idea that changing the definition would result in more sea otters taken. It took the opposite side of Friends of the Sea Otter: “… the otter population is expanding so rapidly that it is decimating the shellfish populations in Southeast Alaska. …” the city wrote in its letter to Fish and Wildlife.

In the end, Fish and Wildlife said it lacks data to determine whether the revised definition will increase or decrease harvests.

Contact Mirror editor James Brooks at editor@kodiakdailymirror.com.

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