Native leader avoids jail time for selling seal parts

By Mary Pemberton
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) 10-07

A Native leader on St. Paul Island avoided jail time September 26th for illegally selling fur seal parts in a case a federal judge described as a conflict between two cultures.

U.S. District Judge John W. Sedwick told Michael Richard Zacharof – the former president of the Aleut tribal government on the Bering Sea island – that the lure of money caused him to betray his values, leaving him banned from the annual hunt, and his family and elders in his community with not enough seal meat to eat this winter.

“He already is paying a great personal price. He will see his family with less than enough to eat... The crime he has committed will deprive others,” Sedwick said.

Prosecutors said Zacharof, who was a co-signer in 2000 with the National Marine Fisheries Service in an agreement to help manage the island’s fur seals, undermined the trust the federal government placed in him when he sold more than 100 fur seal penises, also called seal sticks, to a Korean gift shop in Anchorage. The penises are sought by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to treat erectile disfunction.

“He has jeopardized the relationship between his community and the federal government,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward. “Personal greed is what motivated him.”

Under the agreement, the tribes are responsible for managing the subsistence hunt on the island 750 miles west of Anchorage. The Pribilofs were discovered in 1786 by Russian fur traders, who enslaved Aleuts and brought them to the islands to hunt fur seals. St. Paul has the highest concentration of fur seals in the world, but the population is one-quarter of what it was and now considered depleted.

Sedwick said jail time was unwarranted. Instead, he ordered that Zacharof be placed on three years’ probation and pay a $1,500 fine.

Zacharof’s behavior amounted to a “stunning departure” from that which made him a community leader, he said.

“You have let them down. I know you know that,” Sedwick said.

Prosecutors said Zacharof sold more than 100 seal penises for $17 apiece. The penises were resold for about $100 apiece. Zacharof took payment in the form of sneakers, sunglasses, free dinners and cash.

Robert Clark, a special agent with NMFS’ law enforcement, said that in the fall of 2004 the agency was looking into the shootings of harbor seals off the Massachusetts coast when it got a tip that seal sticks were being sold in Boston. Agents eventually bought two seal sticks for $200 apiece. A DNA analysis identified them as coming from fur seals in Alaska.

A search warrant of the Anchorage gift shop turned up 10-20 seal sticks in a freezer. Agents observed the wife of the owner leaving the shop and followed her. She was caught trying to dispose of 120 seal sticks at their home, Clark said.

The store owner is facing a separate prosecution.

St. Paul Island residents are allowed to hunt fur seals for subsistence. Seal parts can be sold but only if they are significantly altered and made into a Native handicraft. The law does not allow for the sale of raw parts.

This year, 250 seals were harvested, well below the a quota of 1,300 to 1,800 animals. Recent harvests also have been far below the allowable quota.

Despite that, fur seals in the Pribilof Islands remain depleted. In the 1950s, there were an estimated 2.2 million fur seals. When numbers fell to 800,000 in 1988, they were listed as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. There are about 500,000 fur seals now.

More than a dozen friends and family members showed up for Wednesday’s sentencing, many of them crying as Zacharof addressed the court.

“I can only blame myself for this. I am truly sorry for my actions,” Zacharof said