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AK: Man pleads guilty for illegal otter hunting

November 20, 2009

Man pleads guilty for illegal otter hunting

It's hard to hunt sea otters without a boat. That's the issue that first put Douglas Smith at odds with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

On Tuesday Douglas Smith pleaded guilty in federal court to charges related to the illegal hunting and sale of sea otters. As part of his plea deal, a third count of illegal sale of wildlife was dismissed. According to the indictment, the count that was dismissed stemmed from Smith's sale of a Steller sea lion hide for $2,600.

Smith's attorney, Louis Menendez, declined to comment.

"Mr. Smith's role in this was providing a boat for the illegal take, getting a cut from the illegal take, and then selling hides illegally on his own for profit," said Steven Skrocki, one of the assistant U.S. attorneys who prosecuted the case.

Smith is the second Craig resident this year to stand accused of illegal marine mammal hunting.

According to the U.S. District Court indictment, in July 2007 a man asked Smith to borrow his fiberglass boat so he and an Alaska Native companion could hunt sea otters. Smith agreed, with the caveat that the man pay for the gas burned during any sea otter hunting trips.

Both Smith and the boat borrower, referred to in the indictment as "co-conspirator A," are residents of Craig, and neither of them are Alaska Native. The Marine Mammal Protection Act outlaws hunting for marine mammals unless the hunter is Alaska Native.

Later in 2007, the indictment alleges, Smith agreed to allow co-conspirator A to use Smith's boat for hunting and skinning sea otters. The two men also agreed that co-conspirator A would take along an Alaska Native when he hunted, to give the appearance of a legal hunt, and that Smith would get 10 percent of any of the profits made when co-conspirator A sold the pelts.

The government says that in July 2007 Smith e-mailed a taxidermist in Idaho and offered up the sea otter pelts for sale, assuring the taxidermist that the sale of sea otters was legal. Later that summer Smith e-mailed the taxidermist and told him that he had been selling sea otter hides for $1,000 to $1,400.

In November 2007, co-conspirator A, in the company of an Alaska Native, killed two sea otters. A few weeks later Smith offered to sell two sea otter hides to an undercover agent for $750 each. Co-conspirator A allegedly paid Smith $200 for the use of his boat and owed Smith an additional $200 for other trips.

This is the second recent case out of Craig related to illegally killing sea otters. In March, Craig resident Christopher Rowland was sentenced to 37 months in prison for four counts of violating the Lacey Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It appears that Rowland may be the person referred to as Co-conspirator A in the Smith indictment.

In the course of an investigation into Rowland, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented that he killed about 75 sea otters, including two spring born pups, which Rowland referred to as "micro-babies," according to a Department of Justice press release.

Rowland told undercover officers that he was just getting started and that he had plans to market 40 to 50 hides per month to a broker in Korea. He also killed sea lions and harbor seals and studied population distribution studies of sea otter populations in order to maximize the efficiency of his hunting trips.

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