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Alaska delegation introduces bills to curb states’ bans on walrus ivory

Apr 12, 2019

An ivory walrus on display at Maruskiya’s in Nome. (Photo by Emily Russell/KNOM)

Alaska's lone U.S. congressman and senators introduced legislation in the House and Senate to pre-empt states from banning walrus ivory, whale bone and other marine mammal products.  The delegation proposes amending the Marine Mammal Protection Act, or MMPA, through these new bills.

This is a step in the right direction, Eskimo Walrus Commission director Vera Metcalf said.

“For us, there’s really no way to address the consequences of the ivory ban at the state level, and I’m glad they (the delegation) are moving forward with introducing this legislation that might get us moving and working more to educate the general public about what walrus ivory is to our communities and why it is important to not include it in the ivory ban.”

Almost 10 states, the most recent being Illinois, passed state bans on some or all types of ivory, which included the resource Alaska Native carvers use. These state restrictions were put into effect in response to the near-total federal ban on commercial trade of elephant ivory in 2016.

In an announcement from Alaska’s representatives, Sen. Dan Sullivan said these artisans have been attacked by, “numerous states banning the sale of sustainable arts made of walrus and mammoth ivory and other marine mammal products legally allowed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, unnecessarily coupling them with the illicit sale of poached elephant ivory.”

During a recent visit to St. Lawrence Island, local carvers told Metcalf that the inconsistency among state’s ivory bans has been negatively affecting their sales.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘well, it’s getting harder for me to sell ivory because of this fear (in) people that buy walrus ivory, arts, and craftsk’" she said. "I think there is fear of potential prosecution, because I think each state has different information.”

The Alaska delegation hopes the legislation will end the confusion created by other states’ laws and protect Native artisans who work with ivory.

Metcalf agreed that more needs to be done to protect Alaska Native ivory carvers.

While these two new bills go through Congress, Metcalf and her working group will continue to spread the message that the walrus population is healthy and does not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made that determination in October 2017, so now, the species will continue to be protected under the MMPA for Alaska Natives to sustainably harvest.

“We certainly promote non-wasteful takes, and we have been sending this message," Metcalf said. "But also, using all of what is given to us, including the ivory, is very much a part of our communities using the resource for food and ivory for making beautiful handicrafts and art.”

According to the state delegation, the Secretary of the Interior is authorized to restrict the take of marine mammals if the population is dwindling, but the secretary must also have evidence to demonstrate that.