A man who once agreed to help conserve fur seals has pleaded guilty to illegally selling their parts.
Michael Richard Zacharof, former president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government, co-signed an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2000 to help manage northern fur seals. Northern fur seals are designated a "depleted species" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Zacharof, 50, of St. Paul Island, entered his plea by telephone in a hearing held Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Anchorage. St. Paul Island is located about 300 miles west of the Alaska mainland in the Bering Sea. Its 460 residents are mostly Eskimo or Aleut.
Zacharof faces up to one year in prison and a $20,000 fine for selling seal parts when he is sentenced in the fall.
A call to his home on St. Paul Island was not immediately returned.
Federal prosecutors say Zacharof illegally sold more than 100 seal penises to a Korean gift shop in Anchorage, where they were to be resold for about $100 apiece in the traditional Chinese medicine trade.
Seal penis bones, also called oosiks, are sometimes believed to work like erectile dysfunction drugs, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aunnie Steward said.
The investigation began in Massachusetts in 2004 when bear gall bladders and seal oosiks were discovered in a Boston suburb. The sales were traced to the Korean gift shop in Anchorage. From there, the parts were traced to Zacharof, an Alaska Native who headed a seal hunt, Steward said.
"They (Alaska Natives) are allowed to do this for subsistence purposes and they also are allowed to convert different parts of the seal to traditional Native handicrafts," she said. "They can't sell raw unworked marine mammal parts of any kind."
Steward said the gift shop also faces prosecution.
Kevin Heck, assistant special agent in charge of fisheries enforcement for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Anchorage, said the agency was surprised to discover the scope of the market in seal oosiks.
Such cases are difficult to prosecute for a number of reasons, including the remoteness of St. Paul Island, Heck said.
St. Paul, which is part of the Pribilof Islands, was discovered by Russian fur traders in the 1780s. Fur seals subsequently were severely overharvested.